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The Way To A Man's Heart

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The Ginza store’s kitchen wasn’t an ideal place for baking. But when Richard had taken Seigi up on his offer to make milk jelly, Seigi had realised that inviting Richard over to his tiny apartment for a cooking lesson was out of the question. Besides, the store kitchen, although basic, had everything they’d need: a burner with a couple of milk pans, a fridge to let the jelly set for a few hours, and a sink to wash up the equipment afterwards. Everything else, Seigi had brought in a large tote bag, either from his own kitchen or borrowed from Hiromi.

He sped through his usual cleaning duties that Saturday afternoon, so that, when the store finally closed at five, Seigi was already laying everything out in the kitchen to get started. Richard, as always, took a few minutes to finalise the day’s accounts and check everything was securely locked away. By the time he was done, Seigi had everything arranged on the countertop, and was checking over the ingredients on his list to make sure nothing had been missed.

Realising that Richard was hovering in the doorway, Seigi turned to find out why he hesitated.

In the few weeks he’d worked for Richard, Seigi thought that he had learned to interpret his employer’s subtle expressions. He could recognise the quirk of Richard’s mouth that indicated disappointment; the cold look in his eyes that signalled annoyance; even the hint of a smile that softened his face when Seigi demonstrated that he’d learned something. In that moment, if he had to guess, he’d say that Richard looked...uncertain? It was certainly a new look for him, the man who always seemed so sure of himself no matter what he was doing.

“I swear this isn’t as difficult as it might seem,” Seigi assured him, pulling a mixing bowl to the front edge of the counter. Richard didn’t move any further into the kitchen, so Seigi pulled out the two aprons he’d brought, so Richard would at least have to move close enough to take one. “Here. You’ll need to wear this. And you should probably take off your jacket too. Maybe roll up your sleeves? The last thing you want is to spill milk on your good clothes.”

At that, Richard took a long breath before reaching out to take the blue and white striped apron brought  from Seigi’s own kitchen. His choice wasn’t a total surprise; the only other option was the faded daisy-print one borrowed from Hiromi, and though it might have looked cute, it was probably a little undignified for someone like Richard. Besides, even without his jacket and waistcoat, with Seigi’s apron he looked like a host on some TV cooking show. As he unbuttoned his cuffs and started rolling up his sleeves to his elbows, Seigi couldn’t help but stare at the fine golden hairs dusting his forearms. And...were those freckles? Those were definitely unexpected, given that Richard’s face and hands bore absolutely no sign of ever seeing the sun.

“You’re staring.” Richard turned away, just a fraction, hands slipping behind his back and out of view.

“Sorry!” Seigi felt his face flush as he turned back to the ingredients on the counter. “Ah, I printed out the recipe, so if you like what we make, you can make it again by yourself.”

Finally, Richard moved closer, taking the paper from him to cast his eyes over it.

“This seems reasonably straightforward.” He set the recipe down on the counter and looked expectantly at Seigi.

“Right. Okay.” 

Seigi set him on with measuring out the dry ingredients first, which he seemed to manage easily enough. The problem came when he had to mix them together; Richard barely prodded them with his spatula, as if afraid the sugar mix might leap out and attack him.

“You can be a bit more vigorous than that,” Seigi told him with a laugh. “You need to make sure they’re thoroughly mixed, or the jelly might turn out lumpy or not set properly.”

After eyeing him warily, Richard rattled the spatula around in the bowl, sending tiny clouds of the dry ingredients up to coat the back of his hand. He scowled at the bowl, until Seigi assured him that he was doing it right.

“Okay, next we do the milk and the gelatin.” He asked Richard to measure milk in a clear glass jug, smiling when Richard bent over to eye the markings on the jug to ensure he had precisely the correct amount. The milk went into the pan they usually used for tea, along with a packet of gelatin. “Now we just heat this over a medium heat for a few minutes.”

With nothing to do but wait, Seigi found himself suddenly aware of the quiet, of the almost imperceptible sound of Richard’s breathing as he re-read the recipe, of the faint whistle of his own breaths as he watched the pan.

Whenever Richard taught him something, there would be lots of talking; mostly from Richard, but Seigi would always have questions. Somehow he’d expected Richard to behave much the same during his turn as the student, but instead Richard seemed content to go over the recipe yet again. Should he talk about the different types of milk desserts he knew about? Explain how they could vary the recipe for different flavours or colours, or talk about the moulds he’d brought for the jelly? Maybe he could just put on some background music.

Richard beat him to it.

“It’s blancmange.” He tapped a finger on the recipe paper, where it sat on the countertop. Seigi didn’t recognise the last word, and asked him to repeat it. “Blancmange. A French word, for an old European dish. What you’ve been calling milk jelly, seems very similar to blancmange desserts, a staple of English and French cuisine for a long time.”

“Oh.” Seigi felt an odd twinge of disappointment. “So it’s something you’ve eaten before coming to Japan?” Richard nodded, although he didn’t seem displeased by his realisation. “Do you like it?”

“If it’s made well, with good ingredients and interesting flavours, it’s certainly very enjoyable.”

Seigi cast his eye over his ingredients, which all felt suddenly very basic. He’d only planned for a simple vanilla flavour, as cocoa powder could be tricky to mix in well, and fruit flavourings could taste too artificial, unlike the fresh fruit desserts Richard was used to. He could have brought over any number of flavours of pre-made milk jelly from the supermarket, but the chance to see Richard attempting to cook had seemed like an opportunity he couldn’t miss.

“Well, what we’re making today is just plain vanilla. I hope that’s okay?”

“I’m sure it will be delicious.”

By that time, the milk was starting to steam gently, which meant it was time to add the dry ingredients. Seigi explained as much to Richard, offering him a whisk and asking him to begin stirring while he added the sugar mixture. Richard nodded and, before Seigi realised his mistake, began whipping the milk in the pan just as he’d mixed the sugar earlier. The warm milk splashed up over both their hands, even reaching as far up as the bib of Richard’s apron.

To his credit, Richard didn’t flinch back or even make a sound. But when Seigi looked at him, he couldn’t hold back a splutter of laughter. At that, Richard’s mouth turned downwards, and it might have been scary if not for the splash of milk that dripped down his cheek. Seigi could only grin at him.

“I should have said,” he corrected, moving the bowl away from the pan. “You need to be more gentle mixing the liquid or, well, that happens.”

He tried again to add the sugar to the pan. When Richard didn’t move, Seigi took his hand and guided the whisk back into the milk, showing him how to mix everything together without making the milk slosh over the edge of the pan. Richard’s hand felt cool, although the steam from the milk soon warmed it, and Seigi felt his own fingers grow warm and a little damp as they mixed. When all the sugar mixture was added, Seigi instructed him to keep whisking, his other hand on the pan handle to tilt it slightly.

“I think I have the hang of it now.” Richard’s voice sounded oddly strained, and Seigi realised he was probably babying Richard, keeping his hand on his longer than necessary. He pulled his hand away and grabbed a cloth to wipe up some of the spilled milk, taking care not to get too close to the burner.

“Ah, you could add all sorts of flavours at this point,” Seigi explained as he added a few drops of vanilla essence to the pan, while Richard continued to whisk. “If you wanted to be really fancy, you could use vanilla pods or seeds instead of the stuff in the bottle. Or you could add cinnamon sticks to the milk, or some grated nutmeg, or a fruit puree. Or you can add cocoa powder to the dry ingredients, but it’s tricky to mix it properly without leaving lumps.”

When he deemed the milk mixture ready, Siegi turned off the burner and talked Richard through pouring the liquid into the four flower-shaped moulds he’d borrowed from Hiromi. He did well not to spill, and together they moved the moulds to the fridge.

“We have to leave it to set overnight,” he explained, “so I’m sorry we don’t get to eat it today. But it will be ready when you get back tomorrow, and I can show you how to get it out of the moulds without breaking apart.”

Richard seemed a little disappointed as Seigi closed the fridge door, hiding the desserts from view.

“Well done on your first time making milk jelly,” Seigi told him, hoping he could shift that disappointed look. Richard’s mouth quirked up at the corners even though he wouldn’t look directly at Seigi. Seigi chuckled, and reached out a hand to wipe the last dribble of splashed milk from Richard’s cheek.

Richard flinched back, bumping against the kitchen counter, his own hand flying up to his face. 

It was the first time he’d seen his employer looking any less than calm and composed, and something in Seigi’s stomach twisted unpleasantly at the thought that he’d made Richard feel uncomfortable.

“Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, wiping the traces of milk from his fingers onto his apron. “You just still had milk, from earlier.”

Richard turned, just a fraction, to keep from looking at Seigi.

“It’s fine, really. You just surprised me.” He picked up the pan from where they’d left it on the counter, and moved it to the sink to begin cleaning up.

“You really did do a good job today,” Seigi told him, as he made a start on packing away the remaining ingredients. “It’s hard to believe you’ve had trouble baking before.”

Richard let out a short breath, as close as he’d come to openly sighing at Seigi.

“What kind of instructions don’t specify precisely how you should mix the ingredients?”

He busied himself with cleaning the bowl, and Seigi tried not to laugh. “Yeah, I guess it does sort of assume you know those different techniques. Maybe a cooking video might be more useful next time.”

Richard, with his back turned, didn’t respond. Seigi thought back to how he’d guided Richard’s hand as he whisked the mixture; that had seemed to help, but then Richard had flinched like he’d been stung when Seigi touched his face, so maybe it wasn’t the best idea to try that next time. If there was a next time. Seigi hoped there would be.

“Did you enjoy it, at least?”

He gathered the rest of the utensils and brought them over to the sink to be washed, before finding a clean towel to dry the mixing bowl.

Richard stood a little straighter, as if genuinely considering his answer.

“Yes, I did. I don’t spend much time in the kitchen at home. So this was surprisingly enjoyable.”

“Enough that you’d try it again?”

“Do you know how to make any other desserts?”

Seigi hummed in thought.

“I know how to bake certain cakes, although we don’t have an oven here. There might be some things we can do that don’t need to be baked. Or that we can do with just the one burner.”

“I look forward to it.”

“You can practice your whisking so you don’t drown in milk next time.”

He expected Richard to scowl at him, so it was a pleasant surprise when Richard’s mouth showed a hint of a smile. He watched Richard look up at the wall behind the sink, as though lost in thought for a moment.

“What is it?”

Richard shook his head, then turned his attention back to the sink.

“I was just reminded of something I hadn’t thought of in a long time.”

He didn’t say any more, but Seigi’s curiosity was piqued enough to push for details. It wasn’t often Richard volunteered any information about himself.

“A pleasant memory?”

“Yes.” One side of Richard’s mouth curled upwards, just a fraction. “Making dessert with a friend, when I was very young.” Seigi didn’t say anything, hoping Richard would fill the silence himself. “Nothing quite so fancy. Although it wasn’t dissimilar from milk jelly, now that I think about it. I visited a friend’s house after school. His father saw fit to keep us entertained by having us help to make afternoon tea instead of letting us get up to mischief upstairs. So we made a dessert. From a packet mix - nothing complicated. A strawberry pudding. Angel Delight. That was the brand name. Full of sugar and artificial flavours, and nothing like I’d ever eaten at home. I’m sure we made a terrible mess of the kitchen, and ended up eating half of it before it even made it into serving dishes.”

Richard’s voice softened as he spoke, and Seigi thought he saw his shoulders relax a little, sagging as his head turned up towards the ceiling. 

“That does sound like a fun memory.”

Richard handed him the pan to dry, and he fished around in the basin for the whisk. He took his time washing it, seemingly in no hurry to finish.

“It was. Even though I was scolded when I got home for getting pink stains on my school shirt.”

“Which is why I brought aprons.” Seigi thought about taking the whisk from Richard’s hands, as he’d cleaned it well enough, but he didn’t want to make Richard flinch away from him again. “I like food best when it has pleasant memories attached.”

Richard turned to him as he handed over the whisk, the last item to be washed. He hesitated when his eyes met Seigi’s, and for a second it seemed like he would turn away again.

“And now I have a pleasant memory for when I eat milk jelly,” he said, with a soft smile. It lasted barely a second, before he looked away to drain the water from the sink. “Albeit one tampered by a recipe that didn’t warn against getting drenched with milk.”

“You were hardly drenched!” Seigi took the whisk and bowl and began packing them away in the tote bag, ready to take back home. “Think of it as a learning experience! Now you know the difference between mixing dry ingredients and mixing liquids. Good for you. ” 

His English pronunciation wasn’t perfect, but he hoped it would at least draw another smile from his employer. The look Richard gave him was hard to read, and lasted just long enough to feel awkward, before Richard began to unfasten his apron and take it off to fold neatly into Seigi’s bag.

“Maybe I should buy some milk jelly from the store tomorrow so we can see how ours compares.” He got the last of his things packed away, and turned to see Richard rolling his sleeves back down. He wished he’d spent a little longer looking at the freckles on Richard’s arms, then realised his face was flushing again.

“I would rather not be shown up by convenience store snacks on my first attempt at making desserts, thank you.”

Seigi laughed, and promised not to buy any milk jelly just yet.

“But you will stay after closing tomorrow and try what we made,” Richard told him. It clearly wasn’t up for debate.

“I wouldn’t miss the chance to taste my student’s first dessert!” 

It might have been the first time Seigi thought he saw Richard’s face flush.