Rubbing his chin, Kojiro pondered, but it wasn’t a difficult decision. Fresh pasta because it complemented a creamy dish far better than dried, and tonight was to be mild and nothing spicy to bite into the mouth. Spaghetti because … because he liked it. Kojiro not only liked making spaghetti, but he enjoyed watching the swirl of it in the boiling pan of water, and the way it slunk around whatever sauce he folded into it, enveloping and welcoming—like benevolent quicksand.
That thought amused him and as he fed the dough through the cutter he imagined a big pasta monster emerging from a dish to grapple with his sauce.
Maybe I should make spicy meatballs instead. Wrestle the pasta monster instead of soothing it into submission.
But his guest tonight preferred silky dishes, and not those that fought back.
“Chef Nanjo-san!” a voice cried from below.
He poked his head around the door, looking down the stairs into the restaurant. “What is it, Sara-kun?”
“Sakurayashiki-san is here.”
Early … okay.
“I’ll come down.”
He’d got to the middle of the flight when Kaoru appeared at the bottom. In a silver grey yukata rather than his usual navy, and carrying a wooden cane, he wore his hair loose, cascading down his back, except for one wave across his face. It couldn’t hide the bruises, but they had faded considerably, and the cast on his arm had been replaced by a bandage. Kojiro nearly yelled his relief on seeing the steady recovery.
“I finished a commission and couldn’t see the point in waiting. I can sit at the bar.”
“No, that’s fine. Can you manage the stairs? Only I thought we’d eat up here.”
Kaoru half turned to Sara. “He has the evening off? How have you prised him away from his kitchen?”
“With difficulty,” she replied, smirking. “We had to sign contracts in Chianti swearing we wouldn’t burn the kitchen down.”
“Yes, yes, all right,” Kojiro said, and clopped down to Kaoru’s level. He held out his hand. “Do you need my help?”
“An arm is fine. I don’t need you to carry me.”
He guided Kaoru, placing a palm in the small of his back, which Kaoru didn’t appear to object to as he navigated the stairs, his cane tapping each step.
“I’ve not finished the prep yet, so will you take a seat?” Kojiro asked, gesturing to his futon in front of the television.
“I’d rather sit in a chair in your kitchen. Having a slight problem with getting down to futon level.”
“Oh … oh … right … Then kitchen it is! You’ll have to excuse the fact that it’s a mess and the table isn’t set and—”
“Hush. Since when have you tidied up for me, Kojiro?”
“You calling me a slob?” he asked, pulling out one of his high backed chairs.
“So defensive.” Kaoru winced as he sat down, letting out a held in breath and glanced up at his face. “My hip’s stiff, that’s all. I’m fine.”
“And yes, you are a slob, but what I really meant is that I thought we’d been friends long enough to not need all this fuss.”
“Yes.” He rubbed his eyes, then reached inside his yukata for his fan. “What are you cooking tonight?”
“I gathered that.”
“My favourite. I’m honoured.”
“Is it? I had no idea.”
He wiped the table, then brought two glasses to the table. “Wine or beer… Oh, should you be drinking? I can make tea or I have juice. Cordial? Pocari Sweat? Soda? Uh… soya milk—”
Kaoru flapped his hand. “See what I mean about fuss. Wine is good. White wine even better.”
“I’m trying to be a good host,” Kojiro explained, pulling his best hurt face.
“Save those puppy dog eyes for the girls. I’m never going to be your fawning guest.”
Pouring two glasses of wine, he took a moment to sit with Kaoru before he got on with the food. In truth there wasn’t much he could do while he waited for the pasta to dry, so he gave himself up to enjoying a catch up with Kaoru, one not based on skating or hospitals.
“You look nice,” he began, and cringed because it was such a date type of comment, and this wasn’t a date but a friends meeting for dinner occasion, even if Kaoru did look kind of date-like with his cloud of hair and pristine yukata.
“You look … uh … floury,” Kaoru teased, brushing his hand on Kojiro’s sleeve.
“Downside of making pasta.”
“The upside is eating it, though,” Kaoru replied with one last pat, and settled back into silence. He unfurled his fan, something Kojiro noticed he did when he was entirely at ease, so he let the silence settle gently on them.
“You finished a commission?” Kojiro asked after a while. “That’s great news.”
“Small white lie.,” Kaoru replied, taking a sip from his glass. “It was frustrating me and I couldn’t move forward with it.”
“Bit of brain fog, that’s all. I like this wine.”
Ah, subject change.
“New supplier.” He swilled some around his mouth, then gave a smile. “Mmm, light but crisp—could be describing you.”
“Ha! Whereas you’re a brash, earthy red, sold by the vat. ”
“Am I defined by my taste?” Kojiro asked, puzzling over the words.
“You have a definite type.”
“Are we still talking about wine, here?”
“Ha… who knows?” Swirling his glass, he inhaled but didn’t take a sip, still ruminating before he placed his drink back on the table. “Thank you for inviting me over. I thought I’d be so relieved to be discharged from hospital that I wouldn’t mind working from home.”
“I miss skating,” he admitted, then grasped his drink, taking a gulp. “I’m walking with a cane, but I still want to get back on my board. There, I said it.”
With nothing pertinent to add, Kojiro began to prepare the food. With a saucepan ready for the boiling water, he turned his attention to the pancetta, smearing fat onto the base of a frying pan, then squashing two fat cloves of garlic with the mound of his thumb on the chopping board and rubbing into the pan.
“Why do you do that? Isn’t it better to use a garlic crusher, or do you want to show off your thumb muscles.”
“Ha! A hint of garlic, that’s all, or it overpowers the dish.” He gave a chuckle. “Mind you, the garlic bread will make up for it.” Turning back to the counter, he chopped the pancetta and added it to the garlic, turning the heat to medium. The pancetta sizzled, releasing both fat and aroma and he stirred sporadically with a wooden spatular. “Sorry, if this is boring.”
“Again with the fuss! When have I ever found you boring?”
He peeked over his shoulder. “Uh, hello, this is the guy who rattles on and on about how boring my weight training and gym trips are.”
“That’s different. Food is your domain and you’re excited about it. Your endless litany of how much iron you’ve pumped is incredibly dull.”
“I could throw you down the stairs, you know.”
“With one hand, no doubt. But you’re also a praise junkie, so not before I’ve tasted your food and then I’ll compliment you and you’ll fold,” Kaoru laughed, and gave him a smile.
Folding like spaghetti, curling at the bottom of a bowl.
While the pancetta crisped, he boiled the pasta, and then cracking four large eggs, he separated the yolks into a smaller bowl to whisk.
“Your bum jiggles when you do that.”
“Your bum jiggles up and down. I didn’t think it was possible given it’s all muscle.”
“Ignore me, I’m objectifying you that’s all,” Kaoru replied, draining his glass. “Must be the wine. You have more?”
He’s barely had a glass. And objectifying me? Since when?
Topping up Kaoru’s glass, Kojiro observed him, wondering first if he really was drunk, or whether he was doped up on too many pain meds. Yet his eyes were clear not glazed and there was nothing to suggest inebriation beyond him saying so.
“It’ll be ready soon,” he murmured, turning back to the stove.
“I’m in no rush.” He was frowning down at his glass, tracing a faint pattern with his fingernail on the outside where condensation had formed. “Good really as I’m limping at the moment.” Silent, he continued to trace. “That might work.”
“What might work?”
“Oh, for the commission. I have ideas at the oddest moments,” he said and laughed as his thumb smudged the pattern. “When I was in hospital I dreamt about this damn commission. It started off with a feathery elegance, which I’m not sure the client is after at all, and then …”
“Your tattoo superimposed itself on my delicate design.”
“On behalf of my tattoo I apologise for the inconvenience.”
“I’ve only just remembered.” He cocked his head to the side. “The boldness might work, actually.”
“So I’m useful?” The water was boiling; he added salt and then curled the spaghetti into the pan, watching as the water made a courteous space for it before enveloping it.
“Sometimes. You’ll do something either wonderfully heroic I want to aspire to, or ridiculously abrasive and all I want to do is kick out. Your tattoo refusing to leave my subconscious is one such abrasive instance, but … yes … it might help.”
“Not sure I understand …”
“Am I boring you?”
“No, not in the slightest. It’s inter—” He broke off seeing Kaoru’s smirk. “Okay, okay, I get it.”
Draining the pasta, he added it to the pancetta pan, swishing it around with some of the pasta water, then poured the egg mixture in a gloopy mess around it. This was the part he liked, stirring gently and yet swiftly so the egg coagulated into a sauce rather than scrambled egg. He poured in more of the water, swirled it again, and then spooned it into two warm bowls, shaved parmigiano over and ground up some black pepper.
“Dinner is served, Signore,” he said with a flourish, then whipped across to the oven. “Except your appalling waiter has forgotten the garlic bread. You should complain.”
“And that’s you.”
“Mmm, I’ll sack myself,” he replied as he scooped the bread into a bowl. “Or you could give this poor put-upon waiter a second chance and not complain at all.”
“I’ll consider it,” Kaoru said, Closing his eyes, he inhaled and licked his lips. “Smells delicious, I’ve forgotten the shabby waiter already.”
He twirled some strands on a fork, deftly now, but Kojiro laughed remembering his parents’ kitchen and the first time he’d insisted they use forks instead of chopsticks. More of the spaghetti had landed on the table than in their mouths, but Kaoru had stuck with it, finally lowering a bundle of spaghetti in his mouth and declaring it delicious.
“Spaghetti alla carbonara,” Kaoru murmured, expertly twirling a few strands around his fork. “This was the first dish I ordered when I visited you in Italy.”
“I swear you had it every day.”
“Not every. Besides, you wanted my thoughts so I had to compare for analysis.”
He’d taken copious notes. Something that had started as an off-the-cuff request had become a cause for Kaoru and he’d tapped out comments in his phone, alongside pictures of each plate.
Kaoru slurped some more of the pasta, chasing a drop of the egg sauce with his tongue. “I dreamt of this, too.”
“Your carbonara,” he qualified. “Sitting here and being able to eat it, to slurp it through my mouth painlessly.” He swallowed, reached for his wine but didn’t drink any. “I thought he’d broken my jaw, but I didn’t even lose teeth. Humph, I’ve smashed my face up worse crashing into walls—I don’t know why it’s bothering me.”
“Because it was inflicted by someone else,” muttered Kojiro.
“True.” He sniffed then took a deep breath, rolling his shoulders. “Anyway, I dreamt about your carbonara. I guess it was a comfort and a hope I would eat it again soon.”
“Anytime.” He finished his food, mopping up the last of the sauce with some bread, then noticing the tiredness begin to leech into Kaoru’s face, he leant across to him, taking his uninjured hand. “You look uncomfortable. Shall I fetch a cushion?”
Shaking his head, Kaoru finished the last piece of bread then pushed his bowl away. “I’d rather relax on your futon, maybe watch a film?” he suggested and struggled to his feet.
“Hey, Ill help.”
“You might have to. Damn, where’s the cane? Hey!” he yelped as Kojiro scooped him up. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like? I shall carry you, Princess.”
“I can walk!”
“Ahh, but this is more fun,” he teased. “You look so indignant; it’s like having the old Cherry back.”
“I’m not the same?”
“No, you’ve been far too kind and soft. I was getting worried.” Sweeping from the kitchen, he took the seven steps to his futon, carefully depositing Kaoru onto a pile of cushions. Kaoru’s yukata had gaped open, revealing not just his chest, but the bruises which hadn’t faded, the evidence of a not yet healed rib.
“I’m so sorry you had to suffer this,” he whispered, a lump forming so hard and tight in his throat he couldn’t go on and slumped next to him.
“It’s skating. We know the risks.” He stroked Kojiro’s hair, running his slim fingers through his tangled curls. “It wasn’t only your tattoo and carbonara I thought about.”
“Adam—you want revenge?”
“Well, yes, but actually, I thought of you more. I was drifting in and out of consciousness, yet I clearly remember you carrying me into the car and into hospital. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yeah, I did. If I hadn’t, I’d have pounded Adam to a pulp.”
“And you talked to me the whole time. Nonsense stuff to keep me awake, maybe?]”
Don’t die on me, Cherry. We’re getting you help, Kaoru. Don’t leave me like this. Please don’t die.
“I’m built for melodrama,” he mumbled, hiding his flushing face into Kaoru’s shoulder.
His fingers continued their caress, thumb moving to Kojiro’s cheek. “And staying all night, squashed in that tiny chair. The nurse told me you refused to leave.”
“We’re friends,” he said gruffly, coughing to clear his throat. “You’d have done the same. Although, you might have gone home for a spare set of clothes and the nurse would have found you a more comfortable chair.”
He raised his head until they were on the same level, and he was staring into Kaoru’s face.
And right then, he hated Adam for what he’d done. Not merely the battering he’d inflicted, but for dulling the sparkling amber flecks in the golden eyes. For causing this resignation.
“Friends?” Kaoru’s hand stilled. “Is that all we are?”
“Isn’t that … um … enough?”
“Yes… no … I don’t know. In my less lucid moments lying on that track, I thought I’d died and had never … uh …” His groan became a sigh. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You can tell me, you know.” Kojiro replied, bracing himself. “I might disagree or talk you out of it, but it’s like lancing a boil.”
“Eww, is it?”
“Problem shared and all that.” He heaved in a breath, but the knot in his shoulders didn’t shift and a desperate kind of sadness descended behind his eyes—a sadness in the form of Adam, with a mocking smirk and an undeniably cruel lilt to his lips. “You still want to be with him, right?”
“Adam. He dazzled you, dazzled all of us at seventeen, and you’re still blind, right, Cherry?”
“Huh?” Kaoru blinked, and was that a smile wavering on his lips? “Um, no. Another thing I do remember about that night was how he resorted to violence because I could have beaten him. I evaded his ‘love hug’.”
The knot untangled a touch. “Uh … so what were you thinking about on the track?”
“You,” he said simply. “And I know this is … I shouldn’t say this because I so don’t want to ruin anything and I’m clearly not …” His head lolled back on the cushion. “You like sweet, curvy girls you can pack in your pocket—not angular pains in the arse. Types, you see. Crisp white, earthy red. Cream sauces and chilli. It’s—I should probably go.”
Yet he was gripping his hand.
“What were you thinking?” Kojiro repeated.
“How I really wished I’d … confessed. How I might be dying and … No, never mind. You and sweet girls. We’re friends above all else and I’d hate to ruin that.”
Ruin? Huh… Oh.
“Sweet, curvy girls? My type, huh?” He settled back into the futon, stretching out his legs. “Sometimes I run against type.”
“Look, I might be misunderstanding this, but are you saying you regret not … uh … with me?”
“I might.” He shot him a glance under his lashes. “But not if it changes things.”
“It would though. It’s bound to.”
“Forget I said anything then.”
“Can’t forget now,” Kojiro murmured and inched a little closer. He raised Kaoru’s hand to his lips. “Kaoru, I can’t say I’ve not wondered, especially when you’d tell me about a man you liked or whatever. A kind of… what if he ever liked me? What would I do? But it was like there was a barrier and if I crossed it, then everything would break.”
“You’re making no sense.”
“You need to crack eggs to make it. You need to whisk them up, add them to the heat and they transform into what you’ve described as perfection, but, well, I will admit to the odd day when it scrambles.”
“My point is that even if I’ve made the perfect carbonara or the worst carbonara, it’s not the only carbonara and I will make it again.” He nuzzled Kooru’s knuckles with his lips. “We could … crack an egg or two. See what happens when we whisk…”
And Kaoru edged even closer, sitting up a little and reaching across to cup Kojiro’s face in his hands. “Stop with the food analogies and kiss me.”