Joe looked a lot older than he should, but Sid was fairly certain this had less to do with the constant contortion of stress on his face, and much more to do with the fine layer of flour streaking his hair into a matte gray color.
"Calm down." Sid reached out to grab Joe's arm just above the elbow as he paced in front of him, a large bowl tucked under one arm, the other hand rapidly working a whisk. "Everything's going to be fine."
"You don't know that!" Joe shrugged away from Sid's hand and the older man smiled as he rolled his eyes.
"Sure I do. You're neurotic enough not to go through with it if it's not going to be perfect."
"What if I don't?" Joe stopped suddenly in his pacing and turned to stare at Sid with wide pleading eyes. "What if I can't?"
Sid sighed, crossing his arms. "Can't what?"
"Go through with it!" Joe moaned miserably, staring into the icing in his bowl. Sid recognized that gaze, Joe's 'seriously considering drowning myself in this' look, and he stepped forward to take the bowl out of Joe's hands.
"You're over mixing this."
Joe frowned. "How would you know?"
Sid snorted. "How many cakes have I watched you make? I know. You're freaking out, but I really don't understand why."
Joe brandished his whisk at Sid for a moment then went limp, his arms hanging by his sides as he dropped his head. He mumbled something under his breath that Sid couldn't quite hear, prompting a raised eyebrow from Sid.
"What was that?"
Joe sighed and flicked his hair out of his eyes to glare at Sid. On his students that look was probably absolute terror, but with the flour in his hair plus the fact that Sid had known Joe since he was a High School student himself, well. It didn't have quite the same effect.
In fact, Sid laughed, which made Joe turn away in a huff and approach the cooling cakes on the counter.
"Oh, come on." Sid prompted again, setting the bowl of frosting down now that Joe was distracted from it.
"What if he says no?" Joe finally gritted out, patting each cake contemplatively and nodding his approval, though obviously not at himself. No, the way Joe thought it, the cake did all the work (well, the chemistry helped). The way Joe talked about baking, you'd think he was Michelangelo freeing an angel from marble. Or something. Art wasn't one of Sid's strong suits. Neither, admittedly, was baking.
"Are you serious?" Sid demanded. Joe glanced over his shoulder with a truly pathetic look, and this had the intended effect on Sid where the glare had been ineffective. "God damn, Joe. How long have you been dating?"
Joe sniffed and pouted, turning around to lean back against the counter with his arms crossed. "A little over four years."
"And you're happy together?"
"Happier than I've ever been in my life."
Sid smirked. "Thanks a lot."
Joe stared at him. "What's that supposed to mean? It's not like we ever dated!"
"Not for lack of trying on my part, I assure you." Sid shrugged and struggled not to laugh when Joe's eyes got impossibly wider.
"Wha- You! You did not!"
"Well, you are immensely dense." Sid allowed.
"You're practically my brother!"
"Foster." Sid corrected, allowing himself a little chuckle. "And only for two years!"
Joe's arms tightened over his chest, he looked like he was trying to sink back through the counter and disappear. "Sid..."
"Joe, I'm joking." Sid finally said. Joe looked up at him, squinting, scrutinizing. Sid stared back at him, mostly impassive but for the slight wrinkling at the corners of his eyes.
"You bastard." Joe finally mumbled, turning around to face his cakes again.
The finished cake was in the refrigerator. It wasn't Joe's best work and he knew it, but he wanted it to be fresh, so he had to make it the day of, which meant he was on a tight schedule because he also had to look good, plus he'd actually made himself sleep the night before so he wouldn't be a zombie by the time everything was happening.
Of course, doing his baking at ten in the morning instead of two in the morning meant that he'd spent the entire process panicking, and Sid had only been so helpful when it came to calming him down. Admittedly, Joe knew Sid was only trying to help. That was just how Sid dealt with Joe's anxiety. He was nothing if not a good distraction. Well, he was also a pretty decent older brother.
Joe's shower didn't take any longer than usual, but he wasted quite a bit of time in front of the half-fogged mirror with a towel around his hips, contemplating his hair.
As payback for Sid's earlier comments he wasn't allowed in the bathroom, but Joe knew he was leaning right outside the door, waiting.
"What do I do with my hair?" He wailed, holding two handfuls and contemplating just tearing it all out.
"Joe, don't pull your hair out!" Came Sid's response, and he had a point. Joe let his hair fall and then attacked it vigorously with a comb. "What's wrong with your usual style?"
"Shouldn't this be special?"
"You're not planning on wearing a suit, are you? It's just a sushi bar, Joe!"
Joe frowned at himself in the mirror, then started parting his hair the usual way.
"Oh, come on!" Joe grabbed his blue tie and tugged at it, looking down at it and trying to see himself the way he looked from the outside. Which was impossible. "What's wrong with it?"
"It's just a date, Joe! With your long-term boyfriend. At a sushi bar. A tie is way too formal." He paused, and at Joe's mutinous frown he shook his head. "No tie."
Joe sighed and rolled his eyes, but he did loosen the tie and slip it over his head. Sid accepted the garment while Joe smoothed his collar down. Then he patted at his hair to ensure the part was still neat, brushing his ponytail over his shoulder.
"Much better." Sid nodded and smiled his approval, and when Joe still didn't look convinced, he threw in a thumbs up for emphasis. "Just relax, Joe. Believe in the power of positive thinking."
"You are such a bastard."
"I'm just trying to help!" Sid defended himself. Joe frowned and checked his watch nervously. Then he yelped. "No!" He looked up at Sid with his eyes wide. "You have to leave now! He's going to be here in fifteen minutes! He's never, never late."
Sid laughed. "What, do you think he'll think you're cheating on him? With me? We've met, Joe, he knows who I am!"
"I just," Joe seemed to deflate again, turning the pout back on. "I don't want him to think I... I needed you. Okay?"
"Alright, alright." Sid hung Joe's tie up in his closet so as not to totally ruin Joe's otherwise meticulously clean apartment, then crossed the room to give Joe a quick hug. "You'll be fine. He'll be happy. Everything is okay. Okay?"
"Okay. Thanks, Sid."
It was hardly five minutes after Sid left that Don arrived. He wasn't dressed any more elaborately than Joe was, and Joe send a silent thought of thanks towards Sid for talking him out of the tie.
Now that the actual event was in progress, most of Joe's anxieties slipped away. They had started, there was no backing out now. Either it would go well, or Joe would be taking a five hour long shower later.
When they hugged, Joe pressed his nose into Don's curls and breathed in. His gold curls smelled suspiciously of herbs and garlic and tomatoes, and Joe pulled back to fix Don with a smirking stare. "You were at the restaurant today? On your birthday?"
A faint pink blush colored Don's cheeks and he shook his head, but it wasn't so much a denial as a tremble of embarrassment. "They called me in, Joe. I'm just an intern, I'm supposed to say no?"
"No." Joe allowed, giving Don another little squeeze.
"Besides, you work on your birthday practically every year!"
Joe shrugged, leaning forward to press a gentle kiss to Don's laughing lips. "The perils of a winter birthday when you work for the education system. So I take it you're not particularly bothered by no Italian tonight?"
"Excellent. What're we having instead?"
"How does sushi sound?"
"Divine." Don grabbed Joe's hand and dragged him towards the door. "I'm starving."
"You work at a restaurant!" Joe laughed. For having been working in a busy restaurant kitchen all day, Don looked very good. His hair was as fluffy as ever, his clothes were clean, and Joe really didn't mind the way he always smelled like a plate of spaghetti. He thought it was kind of cute.
"You know I can't eat when I'm working." Don chided, still pulling at Joe's arm.
"That's why you're so skinny, since you're always working." Joe pinched at Don's scrawny arm, and when Don tried to smack his hand away Joe stepped closer instead, wrapping his arms around Don's waist and lifting him kicking from the floor. He might be just a teacher, a student teacher no less, but that didn't stop him from staying in shape.
"No! Put me down! Hungry, Joe, I'm hungry!" Don's words were all shot through with affectionate giggles, and Joe's heart soared with hope. Maybe, just maybe...
"Okay, okay." He set Don back down and they headed for the door together, their fingers entwined.
Joe had decided they'd better walk to the restaurant and back. Not that he was planning on drinking. He might be a lot more relaxed when Don was with him, but that didn't stop him from constantly keeping his plan in mind, constantly addressing possibilities and fretting a little about things not going off the way he intended. One too many Sapporo could completely ruin the night.
Don, blissfully unaware of Joe's neurotic plans and reveling in the magic of being newly twenty-three and out on the town with his boyfriend, had imbibed quite a bit more than Joe expected. He wasn't wasted by any means, but he was slurring his words a bit, and Joe had to keep an arm around his waist to make sure he didn't trip and fall over slightly uneven pavement.
Don felt warm against his side, even the beer and sake hadn't overcome the scent of Italian caught in Don's curls, but Joe didn't mind, he was too busy hoping that things would still work out the way he wanted them to.
Joe struggled his key out of his pocket as they approached his apartment, leading Don carefully up the stairs. Don clung to his arm and giggled against his shoulder and when he looked up at Joe's face, Joe recognized the affection in Don's eyes.
"Come on," Joe prompted kindly, leading Don into his cramped kitchen and setting him down at the tiny table.
Don turned his head fast as Joe went into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee, sure that Don was going to need it either way.
"Dessert? Joe? Did you make something? Is that why I couldn't have banana tempura? Joe?"
Joe smiled to himself. Don knew of his baking fascination, and indeed Joe had even made him a birthday cake for the first time ever just the year before. But Don had been a lot more sober on that occasion. He was being insufferably adorable right now, and Joe paused to lean against the counter and take in Don's bright eyes and flushed cheeks and excited smile for a moment.
He laughed. "Yes, I made a cake. It's not perfect, but-"
"Yeah right! Your cakes are always perfect! Come on, come on!"
Joe nodded and took his time to get everything prepared. A lighter to handle the candles (already in the cake as part of the decorations), a mug filled with the fresh coffee, a bottle of Don's preferred cream (Joe took his own coffee black), his sharpest knife for cutting.
Then he brought out the cake.
It really wasn't anything special. No sculptures, he hadn't had time to make fondant. Just careful piping to simulate green plaid on the sides, and cautious script on the top, wishing Dear Don a Happy 23rd Birthday.
Still, Don's eyes went wide and his breath seemed to catch as he took in the effect.
"Is it alright?" Joe asked after a moment of silence.
"It's plaid! Joe! You made me a plaid cake!" Don squeaked, and Joe smiled, suddenly sure he'd made the right choice. Admittedly, he'd seen more than enough of Don's wardrobe by now.
Joe lit the candles and edged across the kitchen to retrieve his gift for Don as he quietly recited (not sang, Joe was practically tone deaf) the happy birthday song.
"Make a wish." He prompted as he returned to the table.
Don took a deep breath, then closed his eyes as he leaned forward to blow out the candles. As he sat back, Joe placed the fancy envelope with Don's name on the front on Don's plate.
Don opened his eyes and stared at the envelope while Joe removed the candles from the cake and started to cut it.
"A gift." Joe's voice caught in his throat, he knew the entire night for him hinged on Don's reaction to this. Don picked the envelope up with trembling fingers and blinked up at Joe.
"And the dinner and the cake and all is what, exactly?"
"A date doesn't count as a gift."
"Cake, Joe!" Don said as Joe placed a slice on his plate as evidence.
"Just open it, please." Joe said, averting his eyes as the sound of tearing paper reached his ears while he served himself a slice of the cake.
"J-Joe?" Don's voice was shaking. Joe took a steeling breath as he turned around, taking in Don's confused little blink and the set of keys sitting in his palm, complete with a little frog key chain. "Joe, what does this mean?"
Joe swallowed and crouched down beside Don's chair, reaching to close Don's hand around the keys and wrap that hand with both of his own.
"I want you to move in with me. Here. It's closer to the restaurant. It's bigger than your place. My bed isn't just a mattress on the floor. You told me Luka was looking for an excuse to get a place of her own, and-"
"Joe." Don reached with his free hand to press one finger over Joe's lips. "Shut up."
Then he leaned forward to replace his finger with his lips.
Don laughed. "The answer is yes. Now get off the floor and eat some damn cake."