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a chef’s intuition

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It was always easy to tell when Rinne was feeling a little out of sorts- or so it was to Niki, anyway. He’d been told that his housemate was manic and incomprehensible, thoughts unable to be read or made sense of even if a person spent hours poring over a single one at a time, but maybe that was just the consensus among people who hadn’t spent years in the guy’s unique company.

Rinne being quieter than usual tended to mean something, as did being louder than usual, and though few believed Niki when he claimed it, exaggerated levels of noise was something dismally easy to identify. Extra-raucous words, laughter that came a little too sharp and deliberate- it all just sounded off to Niki’s practised ears, and paired with the way Rinne's switch completely flipped the moment they got back to their apartment after long days at work, his gaze drifting and shoulders falling…

…there was a small, delicate painting Rinne had brought with him on the night he’d left his village as a child, the treasure done in natural graphite and coloured with plant-based paints. My mother, was the only explanation the teenager had given upon being asked, voice quieter than Niki had ever heard it- and after getting that explanation, Niki simply hadn’t asked again. The woman in the painting was pretty, hair falling in cascades of wavy red over shoulders and a warm, gentle smile on her lips. Only the top half of her body had been included in the image, but it didn’t take much to know that she wore clothing that Niki had never seen the likes of before, embroidery so detailed and unique and overwhelmingly foreign.

A few weeks after Rinne had settled into the chef’s little home, Niki had gotten the painting carefully scanned and printed into a photograph. The original work was framed on one of their kitchen walls for safekeeping, then, while the photograph went into one of the card slots of Rinne’s wallet. Niki asked, later on, whether there were any more little paintings to be converted in such a way- perhaps of a younger sibling, or an entire family unit- but Rinne had shaken his head in response. It seemed that children rarely sat still long enough for their visages to be captured in coal and paint, making this one photo of a beloved adult the sole, visual piece of home Rinne had managed to get his hands on and bring to the city. With that, of course, came a pattern that Niki came to notice over time, a pattern that persisted up to this very day.

Whenever Rinne flipped a small, familiar photograph out of his wallet to look at it for no more than a second before putting it away, or whenever he gave the painting on their wall a glance that seemed to linger one second too long, he was probably homesick.

Niki… didn’t have much experience with being homesick, really. He’d been stuck in the same country, the same home his entire life, and he knew far more about being the one left behind than the one doing the leaving. Still, the one way to cheer a person up when they were feeling down in the dumps was universal, and he’d long mastered the recipe for that.

Idly flicking through the recipe book he’d had in the works since middle school, it didn’t take long to reach the section labelled Rinne in neat hiragana on a bright orange sticky note. He had most dishes perfectly committed to memory, but when it came to the sorts he still wasn’t fully familiar with, it was always useful to have some point of reference before making important decisions. That, of course, and a second opinion from the person with the real wealth of knowledge in this sort of cuisine, the person all of this was really for. Tracing over familiar, ink-penned characters with one finger and lifting his phone with his other hand, he sent a quick, concise message: Salmon or cod?

One, two, three beats of waiting. Then-

Rinne-kun, 18.09: that’s kind of a,,,,,,,, fishy question huh

Niki left him on read.

Rinne-kun, 18.12: salmon I meant salmon don’t be cruel to your beloved rinne-kun my sweet honey darling baby angel apple pie of my eye

The phone was blacked out and left on the table again after sending back a few puking emojis that he made sure Rinne had seen, and then it was back to his recipe book. Getting salmon as the verdict narrowed down his options well enough, and his housemate had always been partial to certain traditional seasonings, so…

Simple stuff, he supposed. Salt, animal fats, homemade stock rather than the store-bought sort Niki always found sorely lacking in far too many areas. A few herbs and spices that weren't the exact type Rinne had rattled off and drawn out for him during their first hometown cooking lesson all those years ago, but rather city-sourced types that Niki had identified and brought back to Rinne to see if they tasted close enough to his village originals. There would be no perfectly replicating a dish from that home far in the outskirts unless Niki ventured out there to gather authentic ingredients himself, and that definitely wouldn't be happening anytime soon, so for now, his own methods would suffice. Carbon copy or not, what mattered was that the food tasted impeccable in its own right, and that, Niki had absolute confidence in.

It was late evening by the time company came in the form of Rinne noisily entering their apartment, keys jangling and feet their usual volume of loud. Perfect timing, actually. Sprinkling the finishing touches of tiny green-black seasoning over a dish, Niki waved his partner over without looking up- he’d learned, over time, that Rinne had his eyes on him more often than not, anyway.

“Dinner already- guess I was right not to grab a sandwich on the way back,” the redhead crowed, slinging an arm around Niki’s shoulder and leaning all his weight onto him with far too much pride. “What’ve you got here, I got that text about fish, but-”

Lifting his head and glancing up, Niki had the good fortune to catch the exact moment Rinne’s gaze fell upon the assorted plates and bowls on the tabletop.

Ceruleans usually glinted over with mischief or smugness went satisfyingly wide with surprise instead, lips parting in a similar sentiment as if Rinne hadn’t seen the likes of those laid-out dishes in his life- though the case was, in fact, the exact opposite. Twin bowls of white rice congregated around a plate of lightly-sauced greens, heads of leeks peeking out from beneath foreign leaves. Salmon cooked pink was framed by potatoes chopped into sizeable cubes for ease of fork-poking, and a miniature bowl of kombu he’d spent time simmering in soy sauce and Mirin waited by the side. To tie it all together came some freshly ladled miso soup that wasn’t strictly traced back to Rinne's hometown, but hey- fusing any kind of food and cuisine was where all the fun was at, these days. (And one could never go wrong with miso, anyway.) He’d tossed some dumplings in as well, their skins made from flour of traditional grain rather than the usual sort, and while that probably wasn’t noticeable just by looking at them, it would be when bitten into and tasted with teeth and tongue.

Comfort food. Food from home- Rinne’s home, the one he’d been born in, the one he’d grown up and developed those particular taste buds in. It didn’t seem to matter how many times Niki turned to this remedy whenever his housemate looked a little out of it, for the method worked every time. He’d wondered, when they were younger, why getting a taste of his native food didn’t just make Rinne even more homesick and send his mood plummeting down to the core of the earth, but eventually…

…he figured Rinne had found more than one place to call his home, now that he’d gotten the chance to. So maybe there wasn’t an all-consuming need to go back to his village when he felt like he missed the kindred voices or familiar flavours, but rather just a need to get healthy doses of those things from time to time, keeping a sometimes nostalgic heart at bay. Flavours, Niki could provide, but as for the people aspect of homesickness… putting a human being in a steaming wok would probably be scarring rather than comforting, so perhaps he’d just nudge Hiiro into calling his brother later instead.

Still staring at the food on the table, Rinne seemed to finally find his voice. “Niki?”

“Yeah?”

“Marry me.”

“Nope.” Prying himself free from a warmth that smelled faintly of alcohol and smoke, the chef headed over to a nearby drawer to grab some cutlery. “I’ll still cook for you whether we’re married or not, so calm your jets, Rinne-kun.”

“If you’ll cook whether we’re married or not, might as well be married, huh?” This line of teasing was a common one, but the grin on Rinne’s face today was a little less roguish, a little more… warm, if Niki allowed himself to think it. “Done deal, just give it a chance-”

“I said no,” Niki replied, tone mild and movements practised as he retrieved two pairs of chopsticks and two metal spoons, then bumped the drawer lightly shut with his hip. “Anyway. Food’s getting cold, so…” He offered Rinne the set of utensils in his left hand, and the redhead took it with his right- a natural response, perhaps, or just a familiar ritual they’d grown into over the years until it felt natural- and Niki felt himself smile in return. “Let’s eat.”

•••

One of the first few things Niki noticed after a few months of working with Oukawa Kohaku was that the kid didn’t eat much at all.

His meals were substantial, sure, proper and balanced enough to get him through hours of physical labour (idol work) and dealing with the various eccentricities that came with Ensemble Square, but for someone the age of a highschooler, there was no hearty wolfing-down of food or consistent asking for seconds the way teenagers tended to do. Meals were also prone to being skipped here and there, and when Niki asked about why…

“I’m used to it,” Kohaku shrugged, taking a swig of cold water from a bottle and wiping the condensation off his hands with the towel looped around his neck. Downtime after practice consisted of just the two of them today, the other two members of their unit having disappeared to do… something or other, by Rinne’s noisy command. “Don’t need that much food t’be up and functionin’, so there’s no need fer excess, is there?”

“This isn’t about excess, it’s about eating well,” Niki replied, taking a bite out of the sandwich he’d brought to the practice room earlier, just so he’d be able to have decent conversations without passing out from energy depletion after a lot of singing and dancing. “Family isn’t the type to feed you till they’re a hundred percent sure you aren’t going to be hungry for at least another half hour?”

“Doesn’t need t'be. Not everyone’s got the same food-cravin’ body as you do, Niki-han.” Yeah, maybe that’s true. Then, staring a little too focusedly at the cap of his bottle as he swirled the remaining liquid around inside, as if he was carefully picking out the words to say: “We’re fine an’ dandy with going long periods of time without much in our bellies, to tell ya the truth. Stakin’ out overnight without snacks and crackers ain’t too uncommon, either.”

Stakeouts? Overnight? “Like… camping?” The only alternative kind of stakeout he could think of was the sort used in assassin movies and the like, which was plain ridiculous in the context of modern Japan. Kohaku stared at him as if he was trying and failing to hide the fact that he thought Niki was completely insane, but that wasn’t a no, so… “We should have a barbecue sometime, actually. Outdoors. But you’ll have to move fast when it comes to the eating, Rinne-kun nabs meat like a demon.” Another mouthful of beef and tomatoed bread gave him the fuel to think through Kohaku’s words properly, however, bringing him right back to his main topic. “Seriously, though? That’s way too little food you’re putting into yourself, no wonder you haven’t grown all that mu- ow. Don’t kick me, I’m just saying-”

“Callin’ me short ain’t the right path to living a long an’ happy life, it’ll do ya good to know that,” Kohaku muttered, retracting his sneakered foot with grace. “Thought you’d’ve learned from Rinne-han tryin’ ta get me to sit in a washing machine.”

“I think that was more of him calling you tiny on the whole, not just in terms of height- hey! I yield, I yield,” Niki laughed, his unoccupied hand raised in surrender as Kohaku aimed another kick. “No more of that, I swear. But, since I’ve never asked- got a favourite food?”

He was treated to a squint that looked far too suspicious for the situation. “Y’know, I’m immune to most poisons, Niki-han.”

…that was a joke. Niki was going to take that as a joke, just as he took most of the things in life these days. “I’m not going to poison you, I just want to make you something nice, is all. Since we’re friends, unitmates, whatever you'd prefer.”

More suspicion. He had the kindest, purest intentions in the world, and he was being met with more suspicion. “Ya don’t have to go outta your way to do things like that,” Kohaku said, tapping his nails lightly against the plastic bottle so they cleanly went click, click, click. “I’m not that skinny. And not so pitiful that I can’t scrounge fer meals on my own.”

“I’m not saying you can’t handle yourself, I’m just saying that a little for-fun food is good for a person,” Niki shrugged, crumpling up his now-empty sandwich wrapper and lobbing it into a nearby bin. “I won’t cook you a whole meal if you don’t want me to, I guess, but at least something small? Dessert, or something.”

Kohaku’s head shot right up at the mention of dessert, and yup, bingo. Resident youngest child of their unit had a secret sweet tooth, big surprise. "You… you're into desserts, too?"

The older male nearly snorted. "I'm a chef, Kohaku-chan. I'm into everything. Give me a couple of your favourite sweets and I'll whip them right up, no problem."

The boy before him looked as if he was torn between rattling off a hundred-item list of delicacies and not believing that Niki was even telling the truth at all. “You’d… make them fer me.”

“Spot on,” Niki grinned, directing a spontaneous pair of finger guns in his junior’s general direction. “It’ll only take a few days, max- hell, I could make them tonight if you wanted me to. The dorm kitchen’s usually deserted past ten, we’d have the run of the place. How about it?”

Kohaku looked almost hopeful for a good moment or so- eyes widening, lips curving upwards, everything about him a little brighter in anticipation of some quality food- but then his expression was falling again in the time it took to blink, as if he’d just remembered something acutely distressing. “Ah- work tonight. Won’t be makin’ it back to the dorms till way past midnight, and it’d be cruel to keep ya waitin’ for that long, so…”

…Crazy:B had nothing on its schedule tonight, and most certainly nothing past the ungodly hours of midnight. “Personal work?”

“Family business. Same thing, I s’pose,” Kohaku said with a small shrug, and though he did seem to be telling the truth, something in his gaze also schooled itself neatly away- closing himself off, Niki guessed, ever so unwilling to disclose any information he felt was just shy of too much. “Anyway. Thank ya kindly for the offer, but it’ll be-”

Nope, nope, nope! “I’ll stay up and wait,” Niki quickly interrupted, waving a hand at a rapid speed as if to physically wipe away whatever Kohaku was about to say, the refusal he was clearly about to make. The younger boy’s mouth clamped shut almost immediately, surprise plain on his face, and Niki jumped in to take full advantage. “Past midnight’s no biggie, Kohaku-chan. You get your work done, clean yourself up at the dorms, then head right over to the kitchens. I’ll have your desserts waiting for you even if I have to sit there all night.”

Much as the promise sounded like an exaggeration, it really wasn’t one- this was practically the closest Niki had ever gotten to Oukawa Kohaku in all the weeks he’d known him, and he’d be a fool not to make use of the chance. (Not Oukawa Kohaku the idol, or the member of Crazy:B- rather, the Oukawa Kohaku who was just another kid who’d been pulled into this industry through one way or another, the kid who got excited over sweets and childishly kicked people in the knees and had a family kept shrouded in mystery, for reasons Niki hadn’t deciphered yet.) If staying up till the crack of dawn got him a piece of Kohaku that was actually real, something a little less jaded and a little more personal, something that could make him genuinely happy though he rarely seemed to smile…

…well. It wasn’t as if Niki hadn’t pulled all-nighters in favour of food-related conquests before, anyway.

Still looking slightly stunned, Kohaku’s lips moved in the slightest- not speaking, but maybe sounding out the words. Then, after what felt like an eternity of waiting, an eternity of silence in which Niki waited with bated breath: “...daifuku. Taiyaki’s a good one too, and… simple dango ain’t nothin’ to sniff at, either. ‘Course, ya don’t have to make ‘em all, these are just-”

“Options, I know,” Niki said with a wide grin, fighting the urge to barrel straight forwards and glomp Kohaku in a big, big hug. Traditional sweets, easy-peasy- Kohaku was definitely getting all three of those things, and maybe a few extra unnamed confectioneries Niki was thinking up himself. “That’s the game plan, then- tonight. Don’t rush your way back, I could wait forever in a kitchen.” (Maybe even conjure up a few new recipes while he was in the mood- there was nothing like some fresh inspiration to stimulate the most unique flavours, after all.) “There'll be lots of stuff in store, so make sure you get home in one piece, got it?”

The bit about getting home in one piece was… mostly a joke. It wasn’t as if Japan wasn’t dangerous past midnight the way any other place in the world was, but the odds of Kohaku meeting his untimely demise while carrying out his duty in the family business were probably low. (For all Niki knew, the kid secretly worked part-time in a twenty-four hour supermarket that’d been passed down the generations, or something.) Still, Kohaku looked at him as if he’d said something touching, important- as if lives really were being risked in that nighttime world of his, preposterous as the idea actually had to be.

As if Niki’s lighthearted warning and genuine well-wishes carried a special sort of weight he wasn’t aware of himself- and maybe, the chef mused as Kohaku gave him a sage nod and the makings of a smile, he’d just ask about all this later, while they were tucking into dessert past the dead of the night.

(Kohaku only made it to the dormitory kitchen around three in the morning, hair looking as if it’d been finger-brushed after a hurried shower and something about his movements slightly off, as if he was limping but trying his hardest to hide it. He waved off Niki’s concerns the way he always did when Niki noticed the bandages on his shoulders and the bruises on his sides- injuries that tended to surface after late nights out like this one- and ever the gentleman, Niki let the matters slide. Then it was time for the real show, the main star of the meal, so to speak, and…)

(...suffice to say, the way Kohaku's eyes completely lit up when he caught sight of the entire fridge stocked with a month’s worth of dessert was worth all the sleepless nights in the world.)

•••

“-sayin’ he just got back from the hospital. He ain’t hurt, just one of his usual visits to… whoever he’s got in there, but…”

But, not being physically hurt didn’t mean there were no grounds for concern. HiMERU’s visit to that unknown ward had left him silent in ways he usually wasn’t, movements stiff and mind clearly elsewhere, miles from his usual level of focus doing practice or meetings. No amount of subtle questions or Rinne-level teasing elicited any reaction from him, but fortunately…

…lunch was coming up. And if there was anything in the world that could lift a man’s spirits when he was dismally down, it was food.

“Pretty strict with your meals, huh,” Niki said cheerfully, sliding into the seat beside his blue haired unitmate at the cafeteria table with ease. He was given a blank look that might’ve made HiMERU seem affronted to any outsider, but Niki knew better- the man wasn’t affronted yet. (Hopefully, things would stay that way.) “Rice, meat, vegetables, fruit- perfectly balanced. The chef in me is proud.”

(The chef in him actually found these fixed kinds of foods a little boring, especially when they always came in similar flavours and layouts on the plate, but he could just keep that a secret.) “But of course. HiMERU always makes an effort to consume foods that will be beneficial to his health,” came the measured reply as Niki took a bite of his own carbonara. “To do otherwise would be unbecoming of HiMERU.”

“You’re in a sweets circle, though,” Niki mused, twirling some linguine around on his fork. “So you probably get your share of fun stuff, too. What do you actually like to eat?”

HiMERU looked, for a moment, like he was about to say something, mouth opening right away and all- only for it to snap quickly shut again. Then, slightly robotically, as if all of this had been rehearsed beforehand- "HiMERU enjoys eating chocolate cake."

…is that so. Perhaps that wasn’t exactly a lie, but somehow, it didn’t seem like the whole truth either- as someone who spent a lot of time making food and watching people eat that food, Niki had a fairly good gauge of everyone’s personal preferences. He took note of expressions and words, the way people’s lips curved or pursed when their tongues came in contact with certain ingredients or flavours, and from all of that, he could be absolutely sure that HiMERU liked cheesecake miles more than he did chocolate.

About three times more, to be exact, so using chocolate cake as his reply to Niki’s question was frankly odd.

Perhaps it was just fatigue- physical and mental strain made people slip up here and there, after all. “Chocolate cake, fine,” Niki said breezily, giving his plate some serious consideration before going for a stunning hunk of bacon. “What else?”

The person by his side silently stared at the spoonful of beef he’d blanketed with rice a few seconds ago, then put it in his mouth. Slow chewing, slow swallowing… “HiMERU enjoys noodles as well.”

Oh, now they were getting somewhere. “Fried? Steamed? Soup? Dry?”

“Instant, if HiMERU’s memory is to be trusted,” his companion murmured into his bento, gaze suspiciously absent- god, was this guy on drugs? Out of all the members of Crazy:B, HiMERU was the one Niki had least predicted to end up getting hooked on these kinds of substances. (The honour of most predicted went to Amagi Rinne.) “Thinner noodles give off the illusion that they can be finished in smaller amounts of time, allowing HiMERU to resume his idol work sooner.”

Idol work, schmidol work. “Chocolate cake and instant noodles,” Niki droned, and now that he was thinking about it, he’d never seen HiMERU consume a single strand of instant noodles, or even go near a packet in the supermarket in his life. “Anything else?”

“HiMERU enjoys-”

No, no, no. “This isn’t an interview, c’mon,” Niki interrupted, and his unitmate froze as if he’d been caught red-handed for something completely invisible. Setting his fork down in a sign that he meant business, the grey haired turned swiftly around in his seat to face HiMERU head-on. “Listen. I don’t want to know what HiMERU likes to eat. I want to know what you like to eat.”

(There was a distinction here. Niki didn’t know why, and maybe it’d be years before HiMERU finally chose to tell him, but what mattered was that he knew it was there.)

This was probably the closest he’d ever gotten to shocking HiMERU, and even then, there wasn’t much of a visible reaction. Though the guy’s expression wasn’t completely inscrutable anymore, it still remained a poker face to some extent, save a taken-aback look in his eyes that could be missed in a blink. Perfect lips parted, and Niki felt his hopes soar up, up, up- perhaps he’d caught HiMERU off-guard enough for him to actually be honest about something as important as this, something as important as food, which Niki would push until the ends of the earth for.

“Cola has an… interesting aftertaste,” HiMERU replied, and nope, nada, we’re right back at square one. Trying his hardest not to groan aloud, Niki ducked his head forwards to thunk it against an imaginary wall of air. While HiMERU had stopped repeating his godforsaken name over and over as if he were talking about someone completely different, he still wasn’t giving a straight answer. Plus, he tended to avoid all these kinds of drinks in general, always wrinkling his nose on instinct whenever he was offered a can, yet here he was, offering it up as an alleged favourite. Has he mentioned cola on talk shows before? He had, he definitely had, so why the hell would a guy make up all this song and dance about liking something rather than just telling the truth, as if he were basing his entire personality off some magical, made-up persona in his head?

Maybe Niki had met his match. Heaving a deep sigh, the chef lifted his head, letting his surrender be known by showing it on his face. He’d concede for now, but someday, one way or another-

“And… perhaps mint.”

The sentence was spoken quietly, so softly that nobody but Niki would be able to hear it, making  Niki sit completely straight in his seat. HiMERU was carefully not looking at him, keeping his eyes on his food rather than anything else in the vicinity, and if Niki hadn’t been in such close proximity, he wouldn’t have known that HiMERU had said anything at all. Mint, mint… that was a crowd favourite as far as herbs went, and the flavour was definitely something HiMERU did enjoy- he kept small packets of breath mints about his person when going out for work and the like, sometimes offering one or two spheres to Kohaku. It all made sense if a person just paid attention, and Niki…

…not only had he always been paying attention, but he also just felt like this was right. Chef’s intuition, maybe.

“Got it,” Niki grinned, shoving the rest of his spaghetti into his mouth and making quick work of it before bouncing to his feet. A mint chocolate cake could be baked in a day, boasting a ripe balance between freshness and richness, and macarons might be a little more work, but he definitely had a container of egg whites lying around in a fridge somewhere. Or maybe a complete mint-centric dessert with just some neutral flavours here and there, mixing sorbet and tuile and oh, he'd be able to play around with plating and design if he did that. "Come over to Cafe Cinnamon tomorrow afternoon, 'kay, HiMERU-kun? I'll have something waiting for you by then."

HiMERU took no more than a few seconds to process that before giving a single nod. As Niki scooped up his lunch tray and moved away from the table, mind buzzing with ideas for new recipes and sweet treats, he could've sworn he caught HiMERU smile.

•••

Trudging up the stairs to his and Rinne's apartment had never felt this tiring, with weary bones and spent morale. To be fair, work was rarely this intensive, either- today had run Niki ragged with back-to-back cooking gigs and an exhausting solo photoshoot for some idol magazine, and his mind and body were feeling the side effects. The anticipation of cooking usually made him jump for joy as if it were a mental battery, but tonight, the very thought of having to go through the effort of whipping something up for dinner after such a long day drew a sigh from his lips.

Finally reaching the door he had a key to, his legs felt like they'd give out any moment, like he'd performed a hundred lives without a bite of food or a minute of rest. He missed the keyhole twice before managing to get his key in properly, then let himself into the apartment. A bubble of voices immediately met his ears, coming from…

...the kitchen?

Get the fuck out of my domain this very instant, was what might have come out of his mouth were those voices not extremely familiar. (That still didn't mean he had the energy to handle three whole people in the kitchen with him in this kind of state, however.) "Rinne-kun," he called as he dumped his bags down onto the floor, and heard the distant chatter halt immediately. "At least text me if you're gonna bring the rest of the bees over. You aren't the one who needs time to figure out a menu for four."

"Three strikes, you're out!" Rinne hollered back, and Niki found himself contemplating the pros and cons of picking his housemate up by the collar and tossing him out the door like a baby cat. "The three of us being the strikes, which means you're… sitting this one out. Get in here, Niki."

That made… very little sense, as was the norm. Rolling his eyes, Niki trudged over as instructed, stepping through the doorway with a complaint ready on his lips-

-and stared.

The dining table was already set and adorned with cutlery, four placemats being flanked by awaiting chopsticks and spoons. At the centre of it all was edamame and miso soup, some dipping sauces and an enormous plate of tempura that HiMERU added to straight from the wok with a pair of long, wooden chopsticks- the sort meant for maneuvering foods that splattered boiling oil at high heat, and the sort that most definitely belonged to Niki’s kitchen drawer. The blue haired male wasn’t wearing an apron, but Rinne was, though his job of cooking instant soba at the other side of the stove was certainly less dangerous than tempura-frying. Kohaku waved from where he was shaking salt onto the edamame with a liberal hand- better more than less, Niki supposed. “See, he did get home on time. Told ya two louts.”

“There was no guarantee,” HiMERU said smoothly, another piece of golden-fried shrimp being deposited onto the tempura pile. “Though HiMERU supposes it was a good thing we started cooking when we did. Not a step, Shiina,” he added, just as Niki looked in the stove’s direction with the intention to help out. “The three of us will be handling things today. I would advise you to take a seat at the table and await our completion, lest you be burned by Amagi’s wild soba attempts.”

“My attempts are great, fuck you,” Rinne retorted, though he wore a wide grin as he divided the noodles into four separate bowls and started ladling soup. “You heard him, Niki. Take a seat like the good lil’ boy you are, ‘cause we’re the chefs tonight.”

“Y’know, if we all end up with food poisoning, tomorrow’s live will have to get called off,” Niki muttered, carefully moving towards his usual chair and sitting down. The food smelled heavenly, and part of him could hardly believe this was real- three of his unit members in his house, working in his kitchen, cooking him dinner though it was usually the other way around. (And his favourite cuisine, no less.) A bowl of soba was delivered to him by their youngest member, and Niki gave a smile in thanks. “Seriously, though? You guys cooking for me- what’s the occasion? My birthday isn’t for months.”

“Who said there has to be an occasion?” Kohaku said loftily, slapping Rinne’s shoulder as he tried to slurp up some leftover soba from the steaming pot. “Can’t we just do it ‘cause we felt like it?”

“Still weird.”

“Only if you choose to make it,” HiMERU shrugged, flicking the stove off and transferring the last of the tempura to its brethren on the table. “HiMERU believes that this is a normal practice among many, especially in equal trade-”

“Basically,” Rinne interrupted, “that’s a roundabout way of sayin’ that this is payback. You’re always cooking delicious stuff for us, even when we don’t even ask for it, so this is your chance to get something nice for yourself. By our talented hands.” The three remaining bowls of soba were transported to the table, and then everyone else was taking their seats, chopsticks being picked up and spoons being dunked into soup. “Even I can pick up a thing or two after living with a chef for years, y’know.”

“Rinne-han, ya spent ten minutes tryin’ to figure out the instructions on the soba packet-”

“How was I supposed to know that we needed more than one pot for both soup and noodles?”

“It’s common sense,” Kohaku deadpanned, and their leader lifted a handful of edamame in the air in evident threat. “I might’ve had ta use the internet for a whole bunch of stuff, but at least ya didn’t catch me tryin’ to cook soba in its own broth right off the bat.”

Edamame was flung across the table in a freakishly straight line, and Kohaku caught it with the tips of his chopsticks in what had to be a literal miracle. Feeling himself break into a wide grin despite being faced with the prospects of wasted food, Niki quickly signalled a time-out before things escalated into a full-on food fight. “Done talking, we’re done. It’d be a waste to let all this food just sit here, right?”

“Ya think so? I was just wonderin’ how Rinne-han would look with edamame up his nose.”

“Niki’s right, talk’s over,” Rinne laughed, circling the air above the tempura plate with a pair of thoughtful chopsticks before neatly picking up a piece of fried aubergine. “Everyone just tuck in, already.”

The food was good, even by the standards of a chef. Soba soft yet not too soft, tempura dipped and fried to crispy perfection, miso soup… as good as powdered instant soup could get, which meant pretty damned delicious. Niki had always assumed his parents had just grown bored of Japanese cuisine, leading them to favour their frequent travels all around the world to hunt for fresh, exotic ingredients, but as for himself…

…he’d always been partial to the taste of home.