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It’s half an hour after closing when the door to Kojirō’s restaurant opens.

“Read the sign! We’re closed!” Kojirō calls from the kitchen, although it doesn’t stop the sound of advancing footsteps. Not that he had actually expected it to.

He sighs as he hears the familiar sound of one of the counter chairs getting pulled out, and he tries to remember what dishes he still has the ingredients for. When he makes his way out to the restaurant floor, though, he blinks as he finds three additional customers accompanying the usual offender, sitting behind the bar in an expectant row.

“Carbonara,” Kaoru demands, not bothering to so much as glance at the menu. “And a glass of prosecco.”

“Do you know what time it is?” Kojirō huffs. “If you wanted carbonara, you should have come before the dinner rush.”

“You’re out of food?” Reki asks, looking up from the menu he’d been paging through. If he were a puppy, Kojirō’s pretty sure his ears would have drooped, and in the seat next to Reki, Langa’s stomach growls.

Kojirō sighs.

“I never said that,” he says. “I just don’t have enough ingredients prepped at the moment to make everything on the menu.”

“Then what do you have?” Miya asks. His expectant expression is devoid of any remorse about showing up uninvited afterhours. It looks like Kaoru’s bad manners are rubbing off on him.

Kojirō takes a quick moment to think of what will require the least amount of prep, and then says, “Ragu Bolognese.”

“That’s not on the menu,” Kaoru says, his eyes narrowing slightly.

As if he’s bothered to so much as glance at the menu since plopping himself down at the counter and demanding food.

“Not yet,” Kojirō confirms. “I’ve been experimenting.”

“I’m not a guinea pig,” Kaoru huffs, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Well, you can have the Bolognese, or you can go down the street to the convenience store,” Kojirō says, returning Kaoru’s stubbornness back to him. Kaoru narrows his eyes, but makes no move to leave, and the rest of the offenders look at Kojirō expectantly.

“Bolognese,” Langa murmurs, more like he’s daydreaming about it than demanding anything.

Kojirō sighs.

“I already sent home my part timers, so you better not be expecting anything to come out quickly,” Kojirō warns, heading back into the kitchen. Briefly, he wonders if he should make them stay behind to wash their dishes, too, but Kaoru would probably just end up making the kids do it.

Kojirō looks forlornly at his freshly cleaned bowls.

It doesn’t actually take that long to make the Bolognese. He’d already spent most of the day messing around with the recipe, letting the sauce boil on a low simmer for the better part of a few hours, and the only thing that actually takes any time is the pasta itself. Steam rises out of the pot as the pasta cooks, and soon enough Kojirō is scooping out the tagliatelle, shaking out the water before transferring it to another pan to mix it with the sauce.

A quick taste test reveals that it should at least satisfy the kids, although whether it’ll withstand Kaoru’s palate is another matter. Maybe this’ll teach him to stop demanding food afterhours.

With that, Kojirō carefully balances the four dishes on his arms and heads back out to the restaurant floor.

“If you want seconds, you’ll have to pay for it,” Kojirō announces, as he sets the plates down on the counter.

“You’re not making us pay for this?” Reki asks, looking up at Kojirō, a forkful of pasta already halfway to his mouth.

“Do you kids have money?” Kojirō replies, eyeing them dubiously.

“Cherry said he’d treat us,” Miya says.

Kaoru chews leisurely on a mouthful of Bolognese, and Kojirō realizes he’s been played.

“Cheapskate,” Kojirō mutters, but the kids are too busy digging into their food to notice, and if Kaoru hears, he doesn’t deign to reply.

Well, at least this saves him the trouble of finding more taste testers.

The restaurant falls into relative silence as everyone eats, other than the clink of silverware and muted sound of chewing. Kojirō watches on with amusement as Langa and Reki down their pasta with a speed that only teenage boys are capable of, and he wonders if maybe he will be able to make Kaoru pay for seconds, and recuperate at least a bit of tonight’s expenses.

“So,” Kojirō says, once everyone’s made a decent dent in their food. “How is it?”

“It’s delicious,” Reki answers with a wide smile, and next to him Langa makes an absent sound of agreement, more focused on sopping up the last of the Bolognese sauce with his tagliatelle.

“I could use some more sauce,” Miya adds, between bites, but he softens the criticism with a muttered, reluctant, “because it’s really good.”

Kojirō resists the urge to preen, and asks, “Kaoru?”

Kaoru chews, swallows, and then says, “アジクーター.”

With that, he takes another bite.

“Wait, Cherry – ” Reki starts, half muffled by the pasta in his mouth. He pauses to swallow, and then says, “You know Okinawan?”

“I was born and raised here,” Kaoru replies easily, not bothering to look up from his food. “I know a few words.”

“Huh,” Reki says, frowning slightly. “Because you’re always wearing kimono and stuff, you seem so ナイチャー, so it’s weird to hear you using Okinawan.”

“His whole family is from mainland,” Kojirō snorts. Absently, he notices that Langa has finished his Bolognese and is looking down at the empty bowl speculatively. “He only bothers to remember words he can use to criticize my cooking.”

“So you learned all your Okinawan from Joe?” Miya asks with falsely innocent curiosity, attention diverted from his food.

“I know non-food related terms,” Kaoru huffs, glaring at Kojirō. He’s finished the last of his pasta, and he rests his fork in his bowl, crossing his arms over his chest defensively. He reminds Kojirō of an agitated cat.

“Like?” Kojirō asks, quirking an eyebrow at him.

Kaoru pauses to consider, and then says, “デージ.”

“I know デージ,” Langa comments, finally turning his attention away from his empty bowl.

“Langa’s been here for three months and he knows デージ,” Kojirō says, the corners of his mouth quirking up into something smug. Kaoru glares at him.

“If you’d prefer I insulted your food in Japanese, I can do that instead,” Kaoru retorts. He pushes the empty bowl away from himself, and says, “The sauce is far too rich and heavy, and as Miya said, you haven’t balanced the ratio well enough with the pasta. And if you were to try to pair it with wine, a red would only exasperate the heavy flavor, and it would clash with a white.”

Wine pairings?” Kojirō repeats with a scowl, unconsciously leaning across the counter towards Kaoru. “You didn’t even know there were different types of wines until I took you to France!”

“I just prefer Japanese alcohols,” Kaoru huffs. Maybe it’s just a trick of the lighting, but his cheeks seem to have gone a little pink.

“You drank a whole bottle of rose on your birthday last year,” Kojirō retorts, and the pinkness of Kaoru’s cheeks darkens. It’s a far cry from the color Kaoru’s face had been after all that rose, though, flushed and lax and, for once, not bothering to hide his satisfaction as he dug into a piece of birthday cake.

Kojirō has a couple of photos on his phone from that night. Kaoru would probably kill him if he found out.

“That’s only because you don’t stock anything good in this restaurant,” Kaoru complains. Kojirō snorts in disbelief, and it earns him another glare from Kaoru. “Which is beside the point. You wanted my opinion on your food, and there it is.” He stands up from his chair and announces, “Unless you have anything else you need me to critique, I’m leaving.”

“You know where the door is,” Kojirō says, waving lazily in the right direction.

Kaoru spares him one last glare and then turns on his heel.

The door closes behind Kaoru with more force than was probably necessary, and Kojirō finally lets himself sigh.

There’s a pause, and then Langa asks, “What’s アジ – ” He cuts himself off, his forehead creasing.

“アジクーター,” Reki supplies. “It means rich, or flavorful.” He frowns, and continues, “But it’s usually a compliment, and not, like, a bad thing.”

“Kaoru probably just learned it wrong,” Kojirō says, waving off Reki’s concerns.

“Yeah, I guess,” Reki replies, glancing over at Kaoru’s empty bowl.

“I’m not saying he didn’t like it,” Kojirō adds, as he starts to gather up the empty bowls. “He just doesn’t want to admit it. The day Kaoru compliments my food will be the day hell freezes over.”

The four of them fall quiet for a moment.

Then, Langa says, “Do we really have to pay for seconds?”

Kojirō sighs.

---

In Kojirō’s defense, there was only supposed to be a thirty percent chance of rain.

“If I have to redo all of Carla’s wiring, it’s your fault,” Kaoru mutters. He’s clutching Carla to his chest as they slug through the downpour, in an attempt to keep her dry, although he’s not managing it very well.

“It wasn’t supposed to rain this hard today!” Kojirō protests. He’s holding his own skateboard under his arm, partially out of solidarity, and partially because the ground is slippery enough that he doesn’t trust his board to maintain traction. “And you could have checked the weather report yourself, too.”

“You’re the one who said you had a new trick to show me!” Kaoru retorts, shooting Kojirō a glare. Its impact is somewhat weakened by his waterlogged hair sticking to his face.

“And I did!” Kojirō huffs. “But you didn’t have to agree to come out here!”

Kaoru opens his mouth to argue further, but then closes it, jaw clenched in begrudging acknowledgement.

(Although, to be honest, Kojirō is well aware of the fact that any mention of a cool new trick will make Kaoru come running, and he may or may not use that to his advantage sometimes. Today may or may not be one of those times, if only because it’s been two weeks since they last skated together.

It’s just more fun to skate with company, is all. Especially if that company is Kaoru.)

“Finally,” Kaoru mutters, as their bikes come into sight, parked at the end of the trail.

Kojirō sighs as he digs his keys out of his pocket, trying not to think about how much of a pain the drive back is going to be. It’s not far, thankfully, but he’ll have to go slower than usual with the low visibility, and –

“Fuck.”

Kojirō looks over to find Kaoru scowling at his bike.

“It won’t start?” Kojirō hazards, his forehead creasing.

“Carla must have short circuited,” Kaoru says. He looks like an angry drowned kitten, and Kojirō feels kind of bad for finding it cute.

“This is why you shouldn’t connect everything to the same AI system,” Kojirō sighs, straddling his own bike and turning the key in the ignition. It starts up with a soft purr, and he flicks on the headlights, before turning back to Kaoru to say, “Hop on.”

Kaoru’s still scowling, but he does as he’s told, settling himself on the back of the bike.

“If you don’t hold on, you’re going to fall off,” Kojirō warns, glancing back over his shoulder. Kaoru glares, but reaches forward to wrap an arm around Kojirō’s waist, pressing up against –

Kojirō grunts as Carla’s wheels dig into his back, still clutched to Kaoru’s chest with his free hand, and now sandwiched in between the two of them. In the interest of getting home and out of the rain sooner, he does not tell Kaoru to tie Carla to the luggage rack. He knows better than to take on that argument.

Instead, he focuses his energy on ignoring the feeling of Kaoru’s palm pressed up against his stomach.

“Don’t fall off,” Kojirō says.

It probably doesn’t actually take that long to get back to Kojirō’s place, but it feels like forever. He’d thought he was soaked enough that he couldn’t possibly get wetter, but the rain seems to seep into every possible crevice, and he can feel Kaoru’s hand get colder against his stomach, going from a small patch of warmth to a block of ice.

If Kaoru’s shivering, he can’t tell with Carla separating them.

By the time they finally arrive back at Kojirō’s house, his hands are almost too stiff to grip the door key, and he struggles with it for a moment before he finally manages to get it open, the two of them crowding into the entryway to escape the rain.

“I call the bath first,” Kaoru announces, kicking off his shoes hastily and starting down the hallway.

“Hey!” Kojirō protests, still struggling with his shoelaces. “It’s my house!”

“So I’m a guest,” Kaoru counters, giving Kojirō a cool look.

“You haven’t been a guest since we were in kindergarten,” Kojirō huffs.

It’s true and Kaoru knows it, so he doesn’t bother to reply, instead heading down the hallway. Unfortunately he knows the layout of Kojirō’s house far too well by now for Kojirō to hope that he’ll forget where the bathroom is, and Kojirō resigns himself to taking a bath after Kaoru.

Instead, he heads for the closet to dig out a couple of towels.

He’s starting to feel warmed up by the time he’s finished drying off and changing. It’s still only the beginning of autumn, so it’s not actually that cold out, and without the rain soaked into him, Kojirō’s starting to regain circulation in his fingers. He grabs an extra pair of sweats and a towel, and leaves them in front of the bathroom door, trying not to think about Kaoru naked in the bath.

Thankfully, he’s had a lot of practice.

With that, he heads for the kitchen.

A quick survey of the fridge reveals enough vegetables to make a passable minestrone soup. It probably won’t be quite traditional, but he doubts Kaoru will care – or even notice the difference, for that matter – and he sets about peeling a couple of carrots.

It’s easy to lose himself in the steady rhythm of chopping vegetables, and it doesn’t take long to have everything prepped, well maintained knives slicing through carrots and onions with practiced speed. He tosses the vegetables in a pan to sauté, and a few minutes later he’s adding the stock, letting it simmer until the contents soften to a good texture.

In fact, he’s almost forgotten about Kaoru, when he hears someone say, “What are you making?”

Kojirō startles slightly, and turns to find Kaoru in the entryway to the kitchen, cozy in his borrow sweats and his face flushed from the bath. It makes Kojirō want to do something stupid, like kiss him.

“Soup,” Kojirō answers, breaking himself out of the trance. He busies himself with getting a couple of bowls off one of the higher shelves, but he can feel Kaoru’s eyes still on him.

“I can see that,” Kaoru snorts. He steps further into the kitchen, leaning over to peer into the pot on the stove.

“It’s minestrone soup,” Kojirō clarifies. He places the bowls down on the counter and then reaches for his tasting spoon, dipping it into the pot, and then holding it out towards Kaoru. “Want to try?”

“I’m not one of your fangirls,” Kaoru huffs, bristling at him.

“You’re worried about an indirect kiss?” Kojirō replies, grinning as he pops the spoonful of soup into his own mouth. The seasoning seems well balanced enough, and the carrot is cooked through, so he reaches to turn off the burner.

“I meant that I don’t need you to feed me,” Kaoru retorts, eyeing Kojirō as he starts filling up the bowls.

“Don’t complain if you don’t like the taste, then,” Kojirō says. He finishes ladling out one bowl and then hands it to Kaoru. Kaoru looks at it dubiously, but still accepts it, grabbing a spoon before making his way over to sit at the dining table.

He plops himself down in the chair like he owns it, and Kojirō kind of wishes he did.

Kaoru’s probably right to call him an idiot.

“How is it?” Kojirō asks after Kaoru’s taken his first sip.

Kaoru’s quiet for a moment, his expression unreadable. Then, he mutters, “アチコーコー.”

“Of course it’s warm. It’s soup,” Kojirō sighs, giving Kaoru an annoyed look. “How about the flavor?”

“Thanks to someone dragging me out into the rain, I’m too cold to care about how it tastes right now,” Kaoru huffs, bringing another spoonful of soup to his mouth. He kicks at Kojirō under the table and says, “Finish your soup and then get in the bath so you don’t catch a cold.”

“Are you worried about me?” Kojirō asks, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

“You’re the one who has to drive me out to get my bike tomorrow,” Kaoru replies, and Kojirō’s no longer sure if the pinkness of his cheeks is from the bath, the soup, or something else.

Kojirō tears his eyes away from Kaoru and focuses back on his own bowl of soup.

At least “warm” isn’t an insult.

---

A week later, Kaoru catches a cold.

It’s unrelated, probably. It’s not like getting caught in the rain can actually make you sick – according to Kojirō’s google searches, at least – and there are plenty of other places Kaoru could have gotten it from.

But that doesn’t mean that Kojirō thinks about it any less.

Which, consequently, is how he finds himself closing his restaurant early and making his way over to Kaoru’s place. Monday night is always slow for business anyway, so it’s not like he’s missing out on much, and even if he could prove that Kaoru got the cold from somewhere else, Kaoru would probably blame him for it anyway.

“Kaoru!” Kojirō calls, after he rings the doorbell for a second time. “If you don’t respond, I’m going to have to assume that you’ve passed out in there and call an ambulance!”

A moment later, he hears the thump of footsteps, and the door in front of him is wrenched open to reveal Kaoru, his kimono disheveled and face flushed, despite the cold pack stuck to his forehead.

“I was working,” Kaoru snaps, voice rough, and Kojirō’s not sure if he sounds like that because of his cold, the mask he’s wearing, or both.

“Why are you working when you’re sick?” Kojirō asks, pressing past Kaoru and into the apartment.

Kaoru glances at the grocery bags in Kojirō’s hands, and then looks back up at Kojirō, but instead of commenting on them, he says, “I have an exhibition deadline coming up.”

“Well, you’re not going to be able to make anything good if you’re sick,” Kojirō says, toeing off his shoes and starting back towards Kaoru’s kitchen. “Go lie down. I’ll wake you when dinner’s ready.”

“I can take care of myself,” Kaoru protests, following Kojirō down the hall.

“You can hardly feed yourself when you’re healthy. There’s no way I can trust you to feed yourself when you’re sick,” Kojirō snorts. He sets the grocery bags down on the counter, and then reaches up to open Kaoru’s cupboards, grimacing slightly when he sees that Kaoru has a grand total of two cheap-looking pans. At least he’d had the foresight to bring his own knives.

Kaoru opens his mouth to argue more, but before he can get anything out, he starts coughing. He hunches over slightly, shoulders trembling as the deep, wet coughs force themselves up out his throat, and before he can think better of it, Kojirō’s reaching out to steady him.

“Have you taken any meds yet?” Kojirō asks, once Kaoru’s coughing fit has subsided. He reaches up to press the back of his hand to Kaoru’s cheek and finds that his face is startlingly warm to the touch, despite the cooling pad plastered to his forehead.

“Yes,” Kaoru mutters. The cold must be affecting him more than he wants to admit, because he doesn’t try to bat Kojirō’s hand away.

“What’s your temperature?” Kojirō presses, his frown deepening.

“38.1,” Kaoru answers grudgingly, and Kojirō clicks his tongue.

“Go rest,” Kojirō says, more firmly this time, finally taking his hand away from Kaoru’s cheek. “The faster you get better, the faster you can go back to work.”

Kaoru glares at him, but thankfully doesn’t protest.

Once Kaoru’s left the room, Kojirō turns back to the grocery bags on the counter. Part of him wants to follow after Kaoru, just to make sure he’s actually going to sleep instead of trying to work more, but that would probably just make Kaoru more irritable, and he has to get started on dinner anyway.

Thankfully, despite how lacking Kaoru’s kitchen is, he at least has a decent rice cooker, and Kojirō sets to work washing the rice. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm as he preps ingredients, and he’s surprised as he physically feels the tension draining out of his shoulders, unaware that seeing Kaoru pale and feverish had made him that tense.

Once the rice is set to cook, he pulls out some green onions, washing them and laying them out on a surprisingly nice wooden cutting board. It’s probably something that Kaoru bought just for the aesthetic, and Kojirō’s mouth quirks up in a smile as he thinks about how good Kaoru’s kitchen looks, as long as you don’t bother to open the cupboards.

Maybe he’ll have to come over and use it more often. That would probably ruin the aesthetic.

It takes a while for the rice for the okayu to cook, so Kojirō makes a few other dishes while he’s waiting. It’s not like he can close his restaurant early every night until Kaoru’s fully recovered, and in his current state, Kaoru doesn’t even look well enough to go down the street to the convenience store, which leaves no food options except for the stash of cup ramen hidden at the very back of the pantry.

Kojirō seals everything in carefully marked tupperware and puts it in the fridge. Then, he writes out a note in his worst handwriting and sticks it to the fridge door.

Even laid up with a fever, Kaoru should be able to read it. Probably.

Once the rice is done, it doesn’t take long to finish the okayu, and soon Kojirō’s spooning it into a bowl, before making his way back towards Kaoru’s room.

“Kaoru,” Kojirō calls out, knocking on the sliding door. There’s no answer, but Kaoru’s probably just sleeping, so he lets himself inside, carefully balancing the still-hot bowl.

As expected, Kaoru’s buried in his futon, curled up with his back facing Kojirō. Kojirō approaches quietly, wondering if maybe he should wait and make Kaoru eat later, but he doubts Kaoru’s eaten much today, and it’s probably better to get some food in him sooner rather than later.

With that, he kneels down against the tatami and reaches out to shake Kaoru’s shoulder.

Kaoru makes a displeased sound and curls in tighter on himself, and Kojirō shakes him again, repeating, “Kaoru.”

It’s finally enough to make Kaoru peel his eyes open, and he blinks at Kojirō for a moment, looking disoriented. His face is still flushed a worrying color, and his forehead creases as he looks up at Kojirō, but then his expression clears, gaze sharpening into its usual glare as he reorients himself.

“Dinner?” he asks, pushing himself up into a sitting position.

“It’s still hot, so be careful,” Kojirō says, handing over the bowl. Kaoru accepts it, inspecting the contents, and apparently finds it satisfactory, because he picks up the spoon and brings a spoonful up to his mouth.

For a moment, the two of them are quiet, awaiting Kaoru’s judgement.

“アファイ,” Kaoru mutters.

“It’s supposed to be bland,” Kojirō huffs, watching as Kaoru takes another bite. “And you’re sick, so even if the flavor balance was perfect, you wouldn’t be able to taste it anyway.”

“There’s a difference between lightly flavored and flavorless,” Kaoru retorts, once he’s swallowed his second mouthful. “Bring me some pepper.”

“You’re already coughing, you don’t need to start sneezing too,” Kojirō says, the corners of his mouth turning down in a frown. He pauses, then adds, “And anyway, it can’t be as bad as the okayu you tried to make for me.”

Kaoru blinks at him for a moment, but then his face flushes somehow redder than it already was, embarrassment clear in his expression.

“That was just instant okayu I got from the convenience store,” Kaoru huffs, looking away from Kojirō and back down at his bowl. “It’s not like I made it.”

Which is true, technically. The okayu that Kaoru had fed him the last time he was sick had clearly been an instant, microwavable brand from the nearby convenience store. But Kojirō had also found some suspiciously burnt-looking remains in his trash can afterwards, and although his pans had been meticulously cleaned to hide the evidence, it wasn’t hard to guess what had happened.

Kojirō wonders if he’s a masochist to wish that Kaoru had given him his actual attempt at cooking, instead of the store-bought backup.

“Well, next time I’m sick, you can show me how to flavor okayu properly,” Kojirō says, keeping his tone steady and casual.

Judging by the color of the burnt mass in his trash can, Kaoru’s okayu would probably kill him, but he can think of worse ways to go.

---

Kojirō does not actually care for Valentine’s Day.

It sounds good in theory, a chance to flirt and get chocolate from as many cute girls as possible. But in reality, most of the women he associates with try to avoid coming off as too clingy, and the chocolates he gets look better than they taste – not cheap, necessarily, but mid-range chocolates chosen more for their outward aesthetic than the quality of the cocoa.

And although they know better than to expect commitment from him, as a professional chef, they do tend to expect high quality gifts for White Day. And not the store-bought kind.

There are currently sixteen boxes of chocolate stashed away in a corner of the restaurant’s walk-in fridge. One of the boxes had Godiva written on the side in shiny gold letters, so he’ll probably eat those himself, but the rest hadn’t looked good enough to waste the calories on, even if he could eat all of them, so he’ll have to figure out who he can pawn them off on later.

Maybe Reki and Langa. Teenage boys wouldn’t turn down free chocolate.

Kojirō’s broken out of his thoughts as he hears the bell attached to the front door chime, and he tries to ignore the way his heartrate increases ever so slightly as he turns to see who’s entered the restaurant.

“Do you have a reservation?” Kojirō asks as Kaoru makes his way over to the counter.

“Carbonara,” Kaoru demands, not bothering to answer Kojirō’s question. “And pair it with something good.”

“We don’t have carbonara tonight,” Kojirō replies, his voice a slow drawl. He motions to the square of cardstock lying on the counter, and explains, “We had a set course menu tonight for Valentine’s Day. And it was by reservation only, so I don’t have much left over for you.”

Kaoru glares down at the cardstock.

“Don’t tell me you’ve completely run out of wine, at least,” Kaoru finally huffs, pushing away the menu.

For a moment, Kojirō hesitates, but then he sighs and says, “I’m not paying for your cab ride home, and the wine isn’t free either.”

“I wasn’t expecting it to be,” Kaoru replies, as if he’s not constantly demanding free food. Kojirō has to hold back a disbelieving snort.

Instead of protesting, though, he goes over to take down a wine glass from a nearby cabinet. He can feel Kaoru watching him as he choses a bottle next, but he pretends not to notice as he takes down a well-aged Vin Santo, uncorking it and then pouring it carefully into the wine glass.

“What’s this?” Kaoru asks, looking suspiciously at the amber colored wine.

“It’s a type of dessert wine. Try it,” Kojirō answers, and before Kaoru can ask any other questions, he turns to go back into the kitchen, and heads to the walk-in refrigerator.

There’s a small, circular cake tucked away in the very back, kept separate from the cakes for the dessert course of the night’s menu. Kojirō takes it out and arranges it carefully on a plate, garnishing it with a stroke of dark red raspberry sauce, and then taking a moment to examine his work. He’s not a pâtissier, and although he’s made cakes before, he can’t say he’s particularly good at them, but this one looks professional, carefully layered and shaped, and hopefully it tastes just as good.

Then again, it is Kaoru he has to please, which is an uphill battle any day.

Kojirō picks up the plate and heads back to the front of the restaurant.

“Here,” Kojirō says, placing the plate in front of Kaoru. “This is all I have left over from today. So hurry up and eat so I can close up.”

“Do you have somewhere to be?” Kaoru asks, turning his scrutinizing gaze from the cake to Kojirō. Kaoru’s scowl seems to have deepened, but maybe that’s just him seeing what he wants to see.

“Yeah, I have a date,” Kojirō says lightly, and Kaoru stabs his cake with more force than necessary. Kojirō suppresses a smile and adds, “With my bed.”

Kaoru stares at him.

“It’s the busiest workday of the year for me,” Kojirō huffs, leaning against the counter. “If you don’t let me go home soon, I’m going to just collapse here.”

“Your fans must be disappointed,” Kaoru says dryly, finally taking his first bite of the cake.

“Not particularly,” Kojirō replies, watching Kaoru’s expression for any hints about his thoughts on the cake. “They all know it would be unfair for me to spend a day like this with just one of them.”

“You’re disgusting,” Kaoru snorts. He takes another bite of cake, and Kojirō feels his heartrate increase ever so slightly. Normally it only takes one mouthful for Kaoru to start insulting his food, and for a moment, Kojirō lets himself hope that maybe, for once, Kaoru might –

“How is it?” Kojirō asks, unable to help himself. “The cake.”

Kaoru reaches for his wine glass, takes a sip, and then says, “チーチーカーカー.”

The smile slides off of Kojirō’s face.

“It’s dry?” Kojirō repeats, a scowl spreading over his face. He reaches out to take the fork from Kaoru, who yelps out a protest, and then takes a bite himself, examining the texture as he chews it, face screwed up in a combination of concentration and annoyance.

“The cake isn’t moist enough,” Kaoru says, crossing his arms over his chest. “And the frosting should be spread more evenly throughout the layers.”

It’s utter bullshit, and Kaoru has to know it.

“Fine,” Kojirō replies, a scowl fixed firmly on his face. “Then I guess you don’t want the rest of it.”

He reaches out with the fork to take another bite, but Kaoru grabs his hand, attempting to wrestle the fork away from him, snapping, “You already gave it to me! And I haven’t had anything else to eat since lunch!”

“Then go get dinner somewhere else!” Kojirō retorts, but he relinquishes the fork, watching on as Kaoru finishes off the rest of the cake in two large bites, chocolate and raspberry sauce smearing over his lower lip.

Part of Kojirō wants to lick it off, which is almost as annoying as Kaoru’s criticisms.

He has terrible taste in men.

“I will,” Kaoru says, finally breaking Kojirō from his thoughts. Kaoru stands up from his chair, digging his wallet out and slapping a bill down on the counter. He takes something else out of his bag too, and it’s only Kojirō’s excellent reflexes that save him when Kaoru decides to fling it at him, making him fumble to catch the box before it hits him or something else more breakable.

“Kaoru – ” Kojirō starts, ready to exchange some more insults, but Kaoru’s already out the door, slamming it with a sound that makes Kojirō wince. He’s going to have to check the frame later.

Kojirō sighs, finally letting the tension drain out of him.

Then, he looks down at the object that Kaoru had thrown at him.

He blinks as he finds a slim, rectangular box, the ribbon tying it together a little squished, but still elegant. There’s a logo on the side in simple gold lettering, and Kojirō’s surprised to recognize it as a local chocolatier, one known for high quality cacao – and a Valentine’s Day waitlist.

Carefully, he unties the ribbon and opens the box.

There are six chocolates in a neat line, each one a different type, and he picks out one, popping it into his mouth. The chocolate is smooth and rich, perfectly bitter, and easily the best Valentine’s Day chocolate he’s ever been given.

“You’re such an idiot,” Kojirō groans, rubbing a hand over his face.

He’s not entirely sure if he means Kaoru, or himself.

---

“Mom?” Kojirō calls out, as he steps into the entryway.

“I’m in the kitchen,” he hears his mother reply, and he heads further into the house, in the direction of her voice.

Sure enough, he finds her in the kitchen, rooting through a cardboard box perched on the countertop. Kojirō makes his way over to examine the contents, watching as she separates carrots from bitter melon, okra from tomatoes.

“It looks like the Nakandakari’s have finally managed to grow a good crop of bitter melon,” Kojirō says, picking up a particularly rotund one to inspect. “I thought they said it didn’t look like they’d make it this year.”

“Well, Kazuma’s bringing over another box tomorrow, so it looks like they’re doing alright,” Kojirō’s mother replies, placing another bitter melon on the counter. She motions to a canvas bag lying next to the box and says, “Take all the ones you want. I don’t even know where to begin with all of these.”

“Has Rika been over?” Kojirō asks, putting the bitter melon he’s holding into the bag.

“Apparently the bats got to their mangos this year,” his mother sighs, putting the last of the produce on the counter and starting to break down the box. “You’ll have to try Mutsumi instead.” She sets the box against the wall, and then says, “So, what are you making for us tonight?”

“Why do I always have to cook when I come over?” Kojirō complains, his mouth twisting into something dangerously close to a pout.

“What’s the point of having a son who’s a chef if I don’t make you cook for me, huh?” his mother retorts, but there’s a smile tugging at her mouth. “I cooked for you since you were a baby. Now it’s your turn. Also, you’re getting free vegetables out of it, so be grateful.”

“Fine, fine,” Kojirō sighs. He puts a couple more eggplants and a carrot into his bag, and then turns to inspect the contents of the fridge. “What do you want me to make? Chanpurū?”

“Don’t you run an Italian restaurant?” his mother huffs. “How about carbonara? Kaoru told me it was イッペーマーサン.”

Kojirō turns to look at her so quickly he nearly hits his head on the refrigerator door.

“Kaoru said that?” he asks, the words spilling out of his mouth before he can stop them. “Those exact words?”

“You already know Kaoru adores your cooking,” his mother continues, oblivious to the turmoil she’s caused. “You already have his stomach, so when are you going to propose? You’re not getting any younger, Kojirō.”

“Mom,” Kojirō complains, trying to ignore the flush spreading across his face. “Kaoru and I aren’t like that.”

“Did you know that Saki’s son just got married? And he’s four years younger than you,” Kojirō’s mother continues, ignoring his protests. “If you don’t – ”

“Alright, alright! I get it!” Kojirō interrupts, trying very hard not to think about Kaoru would react to a marriage proposal, of all things. “Back to dinner. I don’t have the ingredients for carbonara now, but I’ll make it next time, okay? Go help dad with the garden or something.”

It takes Kojirō a few more minutes to shoo his mother out of the kitchen, but when he’s finally alone, he leans against the counter and just takes a few moments to breathe.

Kaoru called his food delicious. Really delicious, if he’s being specific. Kaoru, who’s never given his food an undisputable compliment in the twenty odd years they’ve known each other, called his carbonara イッぺーマーサン.

Kojirō spends the rest of the evening in a bit of a daze. He makes dinner, apparently, and his parents don’t have any complaints about it, despite it not being carbonara, but Kojirō can’t remember how any of it tastes, too busy wondering if there’s any way he can make Kaoru actually compliment his food to his face.

Maybe if he gets his mother to ask Kaoru about his food the next time they’re all together. They could have him over for dinner, or something.

Then again, that would probably just end up with her pestering them about getting married, which is a conversation he’d prefer not to have in front of Kaoru. Kaoru when he’s embarrassed about something is even worse than when he’s angry.

“Kojirō!”

“What?” Kojirō asks, broken abruptly from his thoughts. Idly, he realizes that the last of the dishes in the sink have been washed, although he can’t remember doing them.

“You should bring Kaoru some leftovers,” his mother says, already packing up a bag with tupperware. “And some vegetables. He likes okra, doesn’t he? Take some okra.”

“Mom, you know Kaoru can’t cook,” Kojirō sighs, drying his hands off on a towel.

“Then you can cook them for him,” his mother says, simple and matter of fact. She pushes the bag into his hands and adds, “He was in the hospital recently, wasn’t he? He’s probably lost weight again. He’s already too skinny.”

“That was weeks ago,” Kojirō complains, but he accepts the bag. “I’m not everyone’s personal chef, you know.”

“Kaoru’s never going to marry you with that attitude,” his mother replies, already steering him towards the door.

“Maybe Kaoru should learn to cook for me!” Kojirō protests, a scowl spreading over his face.

“Then you can teach him with these vegetables,” his mother says, looking smug.

Kojirō’s scowl deepens.

He knows a losing battle when he sees one, though, which is how he finds himself out in front of Kaoru’s house half an hour later. He hadn’t bothered to text beforehand, but the lights are on, and as far as he knows, Kaoru doesn’t have any major deadlines coming up soon, so he’s probably not working.

Kojirō looks down at the bag of vegetables, then back at Kaoru’s door, and sighs. And, against his better judgement, he reaches up to ring the doorbell.

It’s quiet for a moment, but then he hears the sound of footsteps, and soon the door opens to reveal Kaoru in a simple kimono, glasses perched on his nose and hair a little messy.

Kojirō really wants to kiss him.

Instead, he holds out the bag and says, “This is from my mom.”

Kaoru blinks at it for a moment, but then accepts it, peering inside warily.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he asks, the creases in his forehead deepening. “I don’t cook.”

“That’s what I told her,” Kojirō snorts. He brushes past Kaoru, taking off his shoes and making his way into the hall. “There’s some leftovers from dinner at the bottom, though. Have you eaten?”

“Not yet,” Kaoru answers absently, following Kojirō down the hall and towards the kitchen, still sifting through the contents of the bag.

“See, this is why my mother worries about you,” Kojirō huffs, taking the bag back from Kaoru. “It’s nearly ten.”

“I was busy,” Kaoru mutters, but he doesn’t protest as Kojirō makes himself at home in the kitchen, pulling out tupperware and taking down plates. Kaoru sits down at the low table in the adjoined living room, and Kojirō can feel Kaoru watching him as he starts to reheat the food, sticking the chanpurū in the microwave and warming up the kachūyu soup on the stovetop.

“You know, maybe you should come over here and watch,” Kojirō says as he stirs the soup. “My mom said I should use those vegetables to teach you how to cook.”

“Why would I need to learn to cook?” Kaoru huffs.

“What if you start dating someone and they want you to cook for them?” Kojirō asks. The microwave dings and he goes to take the plate out of it, placing it on the counter and then taking out a bowl to ladle the soup into.

For a moment, Kaoru’s quiet, but then he says, “I’ll just find someone who likes to cook.”

Kojirō nearly drops the bowl.

“Yeah, well, I like to cook, but that doesn’t mean I want to every day,” Kojirō says, taking a set of chopsticks out of one of the drawers. “Especially after spending all day in the kitchen at work.”

Kaoru doesn’t reply to that.

It only takes a few more minutes to arrange everything, and then Kojirō’s bringing the dishes into the living room, setting them down on the table in front of Kaoru. They’re noting terribly special or complicated, a simple bitter melon stir fry and soup, accompanied by a chilled pickle salad.

Kaoru picks up the chopsticks, and before he can stop himself, Kojirō says, “Sorry it’s not carbonara.”

“Why would I want carbonara?” Kaoru asks, picking up a piece of tofu.

“Well, my mother said you told her it was イッペーマーサン,” Kojirō answers, and Kaoru promptly chokes on his tofu.

“That wasn’t – ” Kaoru sputters, his face turning a delightful shade of pink, and Kojirō lets a smirk spread over his lips. “I wasn’t going to insult your cooking in front of your mother.”

“Uh huh,” Kojirō replies, watching as Kaoru goes for a piece of bitter melon next. “Well, you sure like to eat at my restaurant for someone who doesn’t like my cooking.”

“That’s – ” Kaoru starts, and Kojirō watches him mentally run through a number of excuses. Apparently he realizes that none of them are sufficient, though, because he goes quiet for a moment, and finally mutters, “I don’t need to inflate your ego even more than it already is by complimenting your cooking. You have enough women falling over themselves to do that already.”

Now it’s Kojirō’s turn to go quiet.

He takes a moment to study Kaoru, to take in the pink flush of his cheeks, the way he’s averted his eyes, chopsticks held a little too tight in his grip.

Then, Kojirō says, “I don’t want just anyone to compliment my cooking.” Kaoru lets out a little snort of disbelief and looks up at Kojirō again, but before he can say anything, Kojirō continues with, “It’s not like I can ask to cook for you for the rest of your life if you don’t like my cooking.”

Kaoru stares at him, eyes wide and completely caught off guard. Kojirō holds his gaze and tries to ignore the way his heart is beating too hard in his chest, palms sweaty against his thighs.

“Don’t say it like that,” Kaoru finally manages, breaking eye contact. “One of those girls you’re always flirting with might mistake it for a proposal.”

“Maybe it is a proposal,” Kojirō says, fighting to keep his tone casual. “And I’m not saying it to anyone but you.”

They fall into silence again.

It stretches on for a moment, and then two, Kaoru still refusing to meet Kojirō’s eyes, and Kojirō begins to wonder if this was a mistake, if he’s read this all wrong and Kaoru’s actually –

“Eating your food for the rest of my life,” Kaoru finally says, slowly, haltingly, “wouldn’t be the worst thing.”

Kojirō blinks at him.

“Is it that hard for you to admit that you like my food?” Kojirō groans, slumping forward against the table. “Can’t you just be honest for once in your – ”

“Well maybe it’s not about your cooking!” Kaoru retorts, slamming his chopsticks down on the table. “Maybe I like your cooking because I like you, you idiot!”

Kaoru’s breathing hard from his outburst, face red, and Kojirō stares at him for a moment. Then, he reaches across the table and drags Kaoru into a kiss.

Kaoru stiffens up for a moment, clearly caught off guard, but it doesn’t take him long to relax into Kojirō’s mouth, reaching forward to grab at the front of Kojirō’s shirt and drag him closer. It’s a frantic kiss, not particularly well coordinated, but it’s wet, and warm, and Kaoru, and Kojirō can’t believe he didn’t do this years ago.

But unfortunately, the angle is awkward, and the edge of the table is digging into Kojirō’s stomach, and eventually they have to break apart.

“I like you too,” Kojirō says, his breathing a little heavy. He pauses, and then adds, “And I’m glad you like me, but I do also want you to like my cooking.”

“Your cooking is – ” Kaoru mutters, his face still flushed and his mouth red from the kiss. He hesitates, then says, “ – fine.”

Kojirō groans.