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Compliments to the Chef and Other Anecdotes

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Nino met Aiba in primary school, where they used to turn their noses at the rest of the nose-picking, snot-eating kids. Well, Nino did. Aiba just became friends with the lot of them the week after. He’d never quite grasped the concept of elitism.

These days Aiba works as a co-newspaper man with Japan’s Eight AM Anchor Darling Sakurai Sho. On the side, he writes fashion articles for Non-No as well as gapPRESS MEN, doing it with an eloquence that he does not seem to bring to anything else. On the odd weekday evening they’re both home, Aiba surrounded by work on the couch, reading on his Kobo and shuffling papers around incessantly until Nino threatens to burn all his work. Later into the night, he always falls asleep on the sofa, amidst Nino's game noises and all that strewn paper crumpling under his sharp elbows, gravity eventually dragging his body horizontal and into Nino's side.

Every weekday morning, Aiba goes out early, earlier than Nino can even think about being awake. He pulls off forest-green cropped pants like some GQ Man of the Year 2013. (Which he is. Neither Sakurai nor Nino let him forget, ever.) He writes the fashion that Nino wears – tries to anyway, a foolhardy venture when most of his clothes end up in a heap in their washing machine at the end of the day anyway, vegetable-stained and wrinkled.

“Vests and tattoos are making a comeback this year,” Aiba says around a mouthful of rice, and Nino has to marvel at the extents to which the universe had to conspire to make his best friend any kind of writer.

Then, Aiba likes to grin, pluck Nino’s thick black-rimmed glasses off his nose to plop them in front of his own 60/60 eyes. Watching Aiba squint through the smudged fingerprints of Nino’s world always makes his gut clench in a way he doesn’t like to think about.

*

It was some time after his teenage years that Nino found he had outgrown so much of that pain that came with unrequited love. Or perhaps he used to care about what sort of love it was, and woke up one morning no longer bothered. The realisation had felt immensely fortunate then; a blessing like the shedding work of clothes after a long day and falling into warm, fresh linen.

But all of a sudden on a winter evening last year, as sudden as epiphanies come, Nino understood how different this was, when one loved his best friend in that new way he had not been used to yet. Previously there was that quickening pulse and wanting so much to please but never in this manner; close, familiar and habitual. It’s so much second nature, to love Aiba and be loved in kind. Their existences so conjoined by the childhood and years together, that even now when he thinks about himself, there is Aiba’s steady presence, no more than two steps away.

He isn’t sure what it is still. But this makes him happy: Aiba within reach, warm and sleepy by his side, always willing to tangle their legs together, always reaching out, cocking his head to show that he’s listening to Nino’s complaints about his day, even after a twenty-five hour work day and he's falling asleep in his conbini-stale bento.

Jun told Nino once that he deserved more. After work in the car park adjacent to the restaurant one cold night last year, Jun had spoke slow as he jingled his car keys in between his fingers absently, frowning with as much exhausted seriousness as he could muster. Nino remembers the distant beat of the club around the corner, deep bass both deafening and muffled in the quiet night.

Afterwards, he'd lain awake in bed, unsure if more would make him happier; convinced, by the early light of dawn that it might make him even less.

That night, he had counted down hours to morning by the light on his bedroom wall, artificial glows of streetlamps easing slowly into pastel purple. When the sky turned bright, he scrubbed sticky sleeplessness from his face. Then he heard quiet, distracted mumbling, Aiba’s voice raspy from sleep - the kettle boiling, cupboards opening closing, the soft ssssshhhh of rice grains at the bottom of a pot.

Nino had rolled over then, shut his eyes and his thoughts slowly petered out, giving way to tangible calmness.

In the pale, bleached light, his world had narrowed down to this: Aiba had always been there, and when for the first time Nino considered his life without, he didn’t want it.

*

Aiba makes Nino breakfast most days – miso soup and rice. He leaves Nino notes on the fridge, cluttered with arrows pointing inner-fridge-ward, and the occasional incorrect hiragana, although Nino is far from the one who needs directions for a fridge.

There’s a corner now, on the third shelf from the top, carved out from between the spring onions and restaurant leftovers where Nino reaches into, purely out of habit if nothing else.

Aiba’s always gone by the time Nino wakes just after noon, left in a whirlwind of mismatched socks and half-tamed hair, taking with him the trail of papers in the living room like some magician with an upside-down schedule. In the glare of the midday heat, Nino presses his hands together, bows his head and pictures Aiba in the kitchen at five a.m., elbows cracking as he pulls a faded shirt over his head, sleep-addled and trusting only the muscle memory of water, rice and cup.

Then Nino sighs, sits in the bustle of lunchtime in the high school across the street and resolutely does not think about anything else but the sun on his skin and warm, warm rice.

*

On a Sunday morning in April, Nino comes home at 2:13 to Sakurai and Aiba curled up half-asleep on the couch. Sakurai stirs when the door lock clicks, and Nino watches the way his eyes blur and focus in the orange glow of streetlamps. In the unusual silence, he hears his heart jumpstart, racing, kicking out at his stomach.

Sakurai catches his eyes, waves groggily, and sinks right back down before Nino can even get his shoes off.

It is only then that he remembers Aiba’s hastily pushed-together e-mail, the cigarette between his fingers, smoked down to the filter and the tips of his shoes speckled with stale tobacco dust while Matsumoto yelled at him, his voice echoing off all the metal surfaces in the kitchen.

(A diner had returned two of Matsumoto’s courses. “It’s too thick,” he’d said of the baba ghanoush, and “it’s too sweet,” of the panna cotta. In reply, Matsumoto had tucked his chin into his chest. “I’ll show him fucking thick,” he’d muttered and went so quiet that the entire kitchen skirted around him, skittish with nervous energy.)

But now it’s 2:16am and too late for Nino to protest. He stands in the middle of their living room, exhaustion an ill-advised voice guiding his eyes down the line of Aiba’s shoulders against Sakurai’s chest.

He scrubs his hands under his spectacles, catches the sticky-grease scent of prawn head oil and bruschetta crumbs embedded under his fingernails. Aiba starts snoring into a cushion. Nino doesn’t move from between the haphazard lines of their shoes like two shores pushed up against the walls, far too exhausted and riled up alike to entertain thoughts of stray newscasters, and why he should or shouldn’t or -

The surface of their coffee table is empty, albeit clumsy smears where Nino knows Aiba had tried to drunkenly wipe up beer and snack pieces, only to make things so much worse. An image flashes in his mind of Aiba, with his endless elbows getting in the way, cluttering the space, his sorry sorry, I didn’t mean tos.

That night, Nino chain-smokes until he falls asleep, barely putting out his last cigarette before his dreams close over him. He wakes up at dawn feeling sick and sick to the stomach thinking about Aiba’s morning breath on someone else’s lips.

*

In the morning, Aiba’s knocking on Nino’s door before he can understand that this is reality; the dim light through thick clouds from his open window and an obaasan yelling at her grandchildren down the road. It’s May and the heat is waiting in the curtains, not quite there.

It takes all of five minutes and Aiba’s blurry face to remember that he didn’t dream yesterday night. Sakurai’s got the news on in the living room. NHK and a segment on hydroponics. Nino struggles his spectacles on, groping around until his hands knock into them by the bowl of cigarette butts on his desk. In the process, he nearly jabs his right eye out before the world comes into focus and one of Nino's mustard yellow socks on Aiba's right foot becomes clear.

"Ni-chan, Sho-chan and I are going out for breakfast, want to come? Your shift's not until four right?" Aiba's got one hand around the doorjamb. His hair is flat on one side and his eyes are crinkling in the corners of his smile; it reminds Nino of intricate fanned edges of gyoza, plain flour clinging stubbornly in the whorls of fingertips. But by now now, he’s no longer used to seeing Aiba in the morning light, bright-eyed and eager.

Aiba makes a hopeful face, doing something quite impressive with his eyebrows while he shifts his weight to his left foot. Nino grits his teeth and resolutely doesn't think about yesterday night.

"Maybe. Tell me where first," He answers instead, letting the silly nickname slide this once. It’s still too early after all; this morning spiralling out of control even while previous night’s service still sticks, grimy on his skin. Nino stretches, feline and barely awake. His back twinges.

The Breloom clock on his side table reads 8:31am.

“Sho-kun wants to have curry udon and the more he said it, the more I want to have some and we didn’t want to wait to make some so, we’re going,” Aiba trails off, cocking his head in bemusement. The angles of his Aiba's hips are visible under his worn pajama pants, the loose rubber of its waistband barely hanging on. Nino's distracted for a long moment by the way he takes up space in the doorway, so long-limbed and freckle-skinned.

This is a stark contrast to them both eight years ago in Aiba's childhood room in Chiba, when Nino had woken up before dawn to prepare for lunch in the restaurant. Aiba, in the orange glow of his desk lamp, had tilted his eyes upwards to him, blinking slowly, limbs heavy from studying all night. That morning had tasted of sticky spicy grilled sardines, and loose rice grains, wakame and tofu in miso soup that Nino brought upstairs after prep. They’d sat crosslegged on Aiba’s mattress, poking each other while they ate, until customers started streaming in and Nino was needed downstairs.

Outside the hydroponics segment has given way to a series of Hitachi advertisements. There is a determined rustling that Nino desperately hopes isn’t Sakurai trying to make tea. The last time he didn’t even know how to operate their kettle and ended up shocking himself. They’d found him curled up on their kitchen floor, emitting rooster-like noises with his arm cradled in his chest.

"I've got to be at work early tonight; private event," Nino lies easily, his shoulders rolling helplessly. Even with the reservation, his shift doesn’t start until 2pm. But the week has been long and endless, plus his patience is too frayed to deal with Aiba or Sakurai getting accosted in public by yet another admiring fan who wants to tell them how they’ve made Current Affairs ‘cool’ again.

Aiba looks crestfallen, and Nino has to stave off a pang of guilt in his gut. “But I miss you, Nino. I tried waiting for you last night but we drank too much and fell asleep before. How was your shift?”

“Will you never stop asking me that,” Nino says, then over Aiba’s indignant cries of but your kitchen stories are the coolest! “J almost killed a diner but Sakamoto-san said that really important food critic - Nagano? His favourite one anyway - anyway, he loved every course apparently. Not sure who the real winner was there.”

Thunder cracks. Aiba jumps, visibly. “We should go,” He says, his fingers clenched around the doorframe, reluctant.

After all, it’s been two weeks since they’ve managed to exchange more than good morning and good night in their genkan, Aiba with one shoe on and Nino with one off, always just missing each other to manic night shifts and the early morning news hour.

Aiba lingers in the doorway for a moment longer, lips twisting. Then he makes up his mind and crosses the room to wrap his arms around Nino. “I miss you, Nino. I wish I was in uni again so we could stay in bed to watch cartoons and eat breakfast.”

And Nino is this close to pulling him under the covers so they can do just that.

“At this rate, Sho-chan is going to burn our entire building down before you get breakfast. ” he says instead, because someone’s got to be the adult here.

But for a fleeting moment, he allows himself the curl of fingers in Aiba’s unglamourous non-work jumper. Aiba has a series of obscenely priced jumpers that he got free from sponsors; he keeps for them all the times he wants to be a ‘normal person’. As if a normal person would wear a sixty-eight thousand yen sweater to Lawson’s for a midnight cream puff run. This one is hideously Christmas-themed with deformed prancing reindeer, scruffy at the collar from threads coming loose.

Aiba leans into Nino’s smaller frame. “Okay,” he says, determination in his voice. “I’m going, I’m going to go, I’m going,” but he’s letting Nino press his face into the crook of his neck, letting him inhale the brewing thunderstorm through all that wool. Like this, the world is bearable.

“Okay, go put on some pants.” Nino says after he pulls away. He’s sleepy all over again, warm with residue heat and his best friend’s hand on his knee. If Aiba leaves now, he has just enough time to get another two hours of sleep and two on his 3DS before he has to get up and be a contributing member of society.

“I’m going, I’m going,” Aiba repeats, ducking when Nino swats at his head. “Have a good shift, I’ll see you tomorrow, hopefully.”

“Have fun with Sakerai,” Nino called out, purposely butchering Sho’s name like Sho himself had done on air last week. (Good morning, Tokyo, my name is Sakerai Sho, he’d said. There had been a too-long pause after, in which Aiba tried so hard not to laugh that his face was completely red by the time, he said Good morning, I am Aiba Masaki. Nino had read about it in the tabloids then watched the video on YouTube at least thirty-eight times since.)

Aiba sniggers loudly, the noise carrying down the hallway.

Nino curls up under his blanket, falls asleep to Sho and Aiba’s hushed voices in the living room. He dreams of stewed carrots in sweet simmering curry, and Aiba’s laughter that’s sweeter still.

*

The weather is threatening a storm by the time Nino leaves the house with his jacket over his chef’s jacket. It’s not orthodox exactly; J prefers to change at work so he ‘doesn’t smell like the bottom of his bag but J’s an exception to many rules and Nino doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about smelling like mothballs and pencil shavings.

Aoi’s balancing a tray of smoked cod and beetroot canapés on her arms when Nino gets there. She tries to wave, but doesn't quite succeed because Eikura, with her legs swinging off a bench top, snatches one from the tray. The motion messes up Aoi’s centre of gravity, causing her to tip precariously, wobbling on her toes until she steadies.

Meanwhile Eikura waves her stolen canapé.

"Experiment?" Nino asks, shrugging off his jacket. It's warmer in the kitchen, even without any of the burners switched on. He pulls the door shut behind him with the hook of his foot before any stray leaves get in; Matsujun has chewed Aoi out about Kitchen Basics more times than necessary.

"And staff dinner," Aoi answers simply, setting the tray down when Nana tugs on her sleeve mischievously and pulls her in for a quick kiss.

They're an unlikely couple. As the prep cook, Aoi works quietly, sure and steadily from early morning until the rest of them turn up in the afternoon to finish up with preparing. During service however, Eikura is an explosion of limbs and energy that even Jun has trouble keeping up with sometimes. Where Aoi is thoughtful, considered, Eikura’s open and expressive with a distinct disregard for personal space.

Mostly, Eikura turns up after Nino does at four in the afternoon. But some days like this one, Aoi arrives with her in tow; everyone’s stopped questioning why. She does help sometimes. Other times, she creates fruit friends with dessert materials and hassles Ooshima to make bottle cork collages of Jun’s face. It’s not like she gets paid extra for being there anyway.

"I don't like beetroot," Aoi complains when they part.

Eikura coughs around a chuckle. “Why are you using it then,” and Aoi makes an exaggeratedly nonchalant face.

“I’m ‘pushing myself’,” she drawls, making air quotes around Eikura’s face.

Eikura giggles. “Matsumoto-san would be so proud.” She turns to Nino, pulling her shoulders back and stands taller instantly. “Yuu-chan’s nearly done with the staff dinner, she’s about to move on to the mains. If we’re to do Impressions tonight, would you like to start prepping for that or should we stick to the mains first?”

The client that night requested a menu that’s French and Japanese in equal measure, to “echo the partnership of a marriage”. Nino and Jun nearly maimed each other planning it.

Nino counts the hours they have before the guests start arriving and the number of staff they have that night. “We’ll get started on the mains because those are going to take far longer. I think we should leave Impressions until Becky-san gets here and Matsumoto-san can brief you both on it. Aoi-chan, please let us know what is left.”

He’s not even on the clock yet but he finds himself spreading the menu on the table, with all the plating diagrams in the margins and Jun’s anal-retentive notes on the exact textures of varying elements. Eikura pulls her own crumpled copy out of her whites, and Nino knows she’s already memorised every detail.

Aoi squints thoughtfully into the faraway distance of the opposite wall. “Starters are done. Dinner is nearly done, I just need to crumble feta on these, the elements for the wraps are finished and just have to be assembled. I haven’t started on the mains - if you begin, I can finish up with this and catch up?”

“Okay, we’ll settle plating when everyone gets here,” Nino says, pointing out the two new dishes.

“To be honest, everything we’ve done for a service before but Impressions and - uh - joooo-”

“Jour d'été,” Nino helps, having been schooled by Mister J himself. “It means ‘summer day’; our J does like his French names.”

Eikura shrugs, scrubbing her hands at the sink gleefully, with a touch of mania. “Well, as long as it tastes as good as it sounds.”

In the corner, Aoi tastes a slice of beetroot and lets out a sound of disgust.

*

Jun and Ohno used to sleep together until Jun started dating Becky, before Ohno even quit as their restaurant’s resident baker and poissoner.

Those two things were mutually exclusive.

The morning after the first time, they’d come into work together, giggling and bumping elbows. Jun had been wearing Ohno’s special trout shirt, while Ohno was in Jun’s artichoke-green Oxford shirt that hung off his slender frame and hadn’t been buttoned up enough to hide the bruise on his collarbone.

“Finally got laid?” Nino had said, snide and meaning to sting, but Jun had only shrugged.

“Satoshi-kun is good with his hands,” he’d replied, a lightness to his tone that Nino had never heard before. It had taken a long time afterwards for Nino to understand that they were not in love with each other. It was a sort of love for sure; one that had Jun leaning his hip against Ohno’s bench, watching intently as his hands kneaded dough for that night’s dinner rolls, and that had Ohno buying Jun all the cat brooches he found. But it wasn’t romantic in the least.

Two weeks later, Jun plated up a new original in front of everyone, using tweezers to pull a broad Nasturtium leaf over the top while Fukushi inhaled his rice with a speed previously unknown to the human race.

Impressions of Fishermen, he called it, completely obvious. It was the witching hour on a plate, the dark grey clay contrasting against the pale ice like moonlight glimmering on an endless water’s surface. Tendrils of liquid nitrogen waxed and waned around their spoons.

For a moment, Nino’s head was blank, his breath suspended thickly in his throat.

He’d always hated the sea and by principle, anything related - boats, beaches, fishermen, nets - but here, like this. It was hard to tamp down the hammering of his heart when it was so understated, nearly poetic in its adoration; sea salt chocolate ganache mousse quenelled over a ginger crumb, and shielded by that translucent sheet of umeshu ice that crumbled under their spoons, dissolving into sour-sweetness in Nino’s mouth. The heat and crunch of the ginger crumb undercut by that of the umeshu were exquisite, but something else entirely coupled by the rich salty chocolate mousse and the nuttiness of the Nasturtium.

Nino closed his eyes and saw Jun and Ohno sitting close on a boat out at sea, knees touching and their breaths emerging white on a sea breeze as they passed each other more warmed sake than words.

“You’re insane” was the only thing that Nino managed, licking the back of his cold dessert spoon so he could persuade the image to linger a little longer in his mind.

Jun preened, the pride flitting across his face only momentarily before he was gathering dirty dishes and signalling out for Nino to get everyone to wipe down and get ready for service.

Later, Nino had fixed Jun a steely look in an empty kitchen, across all the suggestions for the upcoming Spring menu.

“That was better even than Forest Floor,” Nino accused, completely aware he sounded hysterical, what with his sandpaper voice and how he sat, crosslegged on the bench.

Jun’s gaze sharpened immediately. For all their culinary differences, this was one thing they always agreed on.

“Better than watching the sun come up over the harbour in your grandparents’ house?” Jun teased, although his body was bent towards Nino, attentive and perfectly serious.

Eyes closed and his throat working trickily around this sliver of insurmountable truth, Nino gave in.

“Better - better than even Aiba’s stupid miso soup and warm rice.”

*

Aiba’s mother sends them shinmai in June, when summer heat beats down mercilessly over Tokyo. Soba shops are brimming with customers, and on certain street corners the glare glints off the glass of skyscrapers and blinds you. It rains everyday.

The household misses the both of you dearly, visit us when you’re not too busy being up-and-coming Tokyo celebrities, she writes in the letter that accompanies it, on stationery so fancy that the paper has gold trimmings around its edges.

At first Nino occupies himself with the oil stains in the background of her neat penmanship. He pictures her in Keikarou, seated at the table nearest to the kitchen during that lull before the breakfast crowd. Maybe she cursed when she peeled her hand from the paper and it came away thickly, maybe she thought briefly of getting a new piece before she gave up. For all that Aiba’s inherited from his mother - her easy laughter and the sedulous way he waits while Nino searches for those words he’s lost to the din of the kitchen - Aiba’s gotten her stops and starts of inelegance too; momentary artlessness in which all his limbs decide they’re a puzzle to be untangled. Aiba has compared it once, to a flamingo wobbling while tourists aren’t looking.

There’s a pang of jealousy that Nino doesn’t quite manage to suppress because a kitchen is possibly the least glamourous place compared to the 8 a.m. news desk. But he remembers days of cooking in that kitchen, those clanging woks sounding like home, and all those nights given over to reading Aiba’s mother’s recipe books between writing essays on the influence of Chinese cuisine on Japanese.

The sticky scent of sweet and sour pork had been hanging in the air that Saturday morning Nino asked for a job. When Aiba’s father clapped him firmly on his shoulder, he’d imagined sweet pineapple like victory, breaking apart between his teeth.

This Monday, Aiba returns from a location shoot in Mito City, hauling back a basket of unriped plums, and it seems, a whole heap of words that he wanted to say to someone whilst there.

He is talking as soon as Nino comes through the front door, before he even has a chance to stop reeling from the heavy blow of starchy humidity, new rice steaming in the rice cooker. Nino knows he was mumbling to himself before there was anyone to listen.

“Nino, Nino, you’re back - ah, that’s good! I went to Kairakuen in Ibaraki to do a whole segment on how it’s been rebuilt from the Tohoku earthquake,” Aiba says, slipping slightly back into his perfect enunciation, the concise syllables out of place when their walls are adorned by his baby niece’s animal drawings.

Nino kicks off his shoes and drops his satchel by the door, retrieving a container of Aoi’s umeboshi, procured from the restaurant.

The difference though is, on TV and in magazines, Aiba is sparing, his words stripped-back in their economy to say what he means in the time that he has. But at home, he gets into rushes like these where all the words are just as important, elephants jostling for space on his tongue and he can barely breathe to get them out.

“It was so beautiful - we had to walk about half an hour from the station, but it was good because I got to meet this young lady who gave us tempura - ah, she ran a tempura shop with her brother and they were fifth generation tempura masters - it was delicious. Maybe we could go one day, but - anyway -”

Nino finds Aiba eventually, bent over the kitchen sink washing a bowl of plums. He is concentrating so hard that he’s lost his train of thought somewhere between plucking stems from their unyielding skins with one of Nino’s spare gastronomical-purposed tweezers.

“Hello to you too,” Nino interrupts. He can’t help if he’s laughing into the crook of his elbow, not when they’re finally at here together for these few hours and their home smells like new beginnings.

Aiba stops.

He turns, blinking into the sunlight from the living room. There are starch bubbles blooming over the rice cooker - collecting and overflowing, collecting and overflowing and Nino aches for some unfathomable reason.

“Ni-chan!” Aiba exclaims again, delighted, letting the end of that thought slip back behind all the others.

“I thought I told you to wait for me until you cook some of the shinmai,” Nino nudges the umeboshi across the counter absently although his voice is gently chiding.

“Well, you’re here now,” Aiba murmurs, already tipping Nino’s mug under their creaky thermos to fill it up with tea. Then, “Oh, I brought these plums back from Mito City today,” introduction more than afterthought.

Nino exhales unevenly, making sure to match Aiba grin for grin. “Bit late for that.”

*

Nino seeks Ohno out occasionally, once every fortnight at least.

Sometimes more at the end of difficult weeks, or when Jun decides they haven’t seen each other for too long. Usually, it’s the former that sends Nino trawling the slippery aisles of hawkers of Tsukiji for unkempt brown hair and a patient murmur that Nino associates with the best bread in the business and a stubborn piscine smell that won’t wash out.

So in July he goes, on four hours of sleep and two weeks after his birthday. Aiba, who is only a little bit more awake than Nino, but already running a finger down the first page of a thick stack, muttering under his breath. Across the table, the words slide around his mouth, rolling out into Nino’s hands like a game of marbles.

“Chew your food,” Nino has to remind him, soup steam fogging his glasses.

Earlier, Aiba had found him smoking on the veranda, as Aiba’s old Chiba U t-shirt engulfed his smaller shoulders and every exhale made him look more like a character out of a noir film. Tokyo had been laid before them, as if suspended, navy hues unintrusive. The cigarette between Nino’s fingers crackled quietly, glowing gold everytime he inhaled. Nino’d pushed his feet into Aiba’s lap, leaning back in his chair and Aiba had automatically pressed his hands to the arches, feeling for new calluses and soothing old ones tenderly.

Now Aiba is prodding Nino’s knee under the table. He’s watching for a reaction, Nino knows. Between uneven bites of hamburger, he scrapes his big toe over Nino’s pyjama pants so the material bunches and rides up. It’s thoroughly annoying.

“You should wake up this early more often, so we can spend -” Aiba says, just as Nino delivers a well-aimed kick to his shin. It’s not very hard but still, Aiba jerks back, his chair dragging on the wood. “Ow.”

“Be thankful I haven’t put on my rubber boots yet,” Nino snipes, stealing a gulp of Aiba’s tea because he’s too lazy to get up for some more.

Aiba is wiggling his eyebrows in a way that can only be described as ‘salacious’. Then he winks, with much difficulty.

“I hope you haven’t been doing that to all the boys, it’s probably why Yamada-kun left you, cock in hand, behind the bleachers.”

Aiba cringes. “That was that one time, Nino. Please, I promised Matsujun I’ll take lots of pictures when you wear them. Stylishly and suavely, I’m sure - suaver than any other person - the suavest.

Aiba’s foot is back. Nino reaches down and tugs Aiba’s sock off his foot, clutching stubbornly despite the fact that it catches on his heel.

“Stop saying suave; you’re going to be late.” Nino chucks the sock at him, calmly finishes up the last of his patty while Aiba scrambles madly around the living room for stray pieces of work. Lord knows how many times Nino’s been awakened by one of Aiba’s frantic phone calls asking him to take some article downstairs, where a black van would be waiting to retrieve it; an open hand waiting wordlessly from the shadows. Sometimes it felt like Aiba was working for a secret government agency instead of the morning news.

Aiba’s shirt is sweat-damp by the time he pulls Nino into a one-armed hug, stopping only to instruct emphatically, say hi to Captain for me. Then he’s yelling about dinner to his shoes, running out of the door before Nino can even be sure he was talking about dinner and not just random kansai-ben.

On the station platform and in the train, Aiba and Sakurai are on all the television screens. Nino frowns. Someone’s put Aiba in a hideous bright yellow blazer; it’s horrifying. Beside him, Sakurai doesn’t introduce himself with the wrong name. But he’s serious and sober, angles stiffer than Nino is used to when he’s on their couch, loose limbed and lethargic.

The volume is turned all the way down, Aiba smiling his Newscaster Smile, warm eyes crinkling and body leaning towards the camera in his eagerness. Nino folds into himself, tucks his chin into the neckband of his t-shirt, his fingers clasped around the width of the DS in his pocket. Aiba’s lips move, silent in the crowded cabin, and guided purely by familiarity, Nino makes out meanwhile construction for Kokoritsu is well underway and on target for 2016, it’s a relief isn’t it, Sakurai-san?

Sho smiles, all professional poise, nods and replies. Nino narrows his eyes, and looks away.

A salaryman notices Nino’s gaze and goes, “My son makes me record the morning news now, he never used to be interested. Apparently, that Aiba guy writes for Non-No, did you know? He’s the reason these damn seven-eighths trousers are all the rage now.”

Nino makes a vague surprised noise at the back of his throat and resolutely does not burst out laughing at the indignant look on the stranger’s face. He’s wearing uncomfortable-looking pants that are trying so hard to reach his socks. Nino imagines his son giving him fashion advice based on Aiba’s advice. Aiba Masaki who’s texted Nino frantically asking why his eggplant cubes were soaking up half a bottle of oil, and who on national TV is wearing the ugliest yellow blazer in the entire universe.

The train pulls into Tsukijishijo station.

Nino hurries out, bursting into sniggers even before he makes it to the gates.

*

Ohno’s falling asleep when Nino gets there.

His store is stuck next to one with a giant display of blowfish, and it’s not like he gets much business outside supplying Sakamoto’s restaurants anyway. He just likes being among everyone’s catches, talking to other people who understand the sharp bite of sea salt on their cheeks and the roiling sea like a wild stallion trying to throw them overboard.

So Nino joins him in the back of his stall, huddling amidst empty styrofoam boxes and loud haggling.

Ohno, pleased and now, asks why didn’t you text, and Nino rolls his eyes, trying and failing to remember the last time Ohno replied a text. Nino’s fluorescent green boots squeak on the wet floor. The man in the blowfish stall is caught in a heated argument with a colleague about someone named Minami. Then Ohno rummages through his bag and emerges with garlic naan and hot fish broth in his lure-printed thermos flask.

“How’s Jun-kun?” Ohno asks, shifting to let Nino slip his hand into his jacket pocket and leans into him as Ohno yawns.

“He’s good. Busy mainly, always busy, our J,” Nino recounts, taking a sip of the broth. He’s still full from breakfast but Ohno’s broths are comfort food. They’re beautifully subtle, hinting endlessly at seabeds where the sunlight and crushing silence appear wrinkled in the water. Then there are the notes of ginger, garlic and leek, like undercurrents, thoughtful, generous. Handmade fish balls bob merrily around in the cap in Nino’s hands, each oddly shaped like a paper mâché balls from kindergarten arts and crafts classes. Then, Nino nudges Ohno with his elbow, “didn’t you just see him yesterday, you old man.”

Ohno laughs. In the blowfish stall, it turns out that Minami is neither fish nor human, but a lure.

“Do you name your lures too, Oh-chan,” Nino deadpans, poking Ohno’s belly through the fleece of his pocket.

“Of course, there’s Taka and Yuji,” Ohno answers in a complete monotone.

They sit for ages, exchanging brief sentences between curious customers enquiring after Ohno’s catch - what’s fresh, what’s not. At one point someone recognises Nino is Matsumoto Jun’s sous chef. And Ohno would have told them off too, if Nino hadn’t first put on a genial smile and said, Ohno-san here used to work in the restaurant too. Now we don’t get our fish from anywhere else.

“How’s Aiba-chan? I saw him on the news this morning, he was very noticeable.” Ohno comments after that, wrinkling his nose. He’s miraculously pulled an azuki bun from the recesses of his bag and is now picking at it, biting off chunks of bread around the paste in the middle.

The man from the blowfish store has lowered his prices by twenty percent and Nino suddenly recalls the pressure of Aiba’s toes on his knee. He licks his chapped lips and a part of his brain wonders faintly if Aiba’s mouth still tastes like hamburgers too, greasy and rich and not at all appropriate for breakfast.

“He was very keen for me to remember to tell you hi from him,” Nino steals some of Ohno’s red bean paste. Sweetness envelopes the memory, rushing over it like waves over a shore. It all comes and goes. At times, he finds peace with this rabbiting pulse in his throat and others, it’s more an ache sinking deep in his bones. Lately though, lately he’s been getting better at it. The practise helps.

“Hi,” Ohno replies, waving to no one in particular. Sunlight is coming in in sharp slants, and everyone is busy packing up.

“Mail him yourself. I’m not your messenger,” Nino knocks their shoulders together, chuckling and yawning at the same time. It’s only 10.58 a.m. but the day feels like it’s stretched out to its limit.

There’s a moment of silence, longer and more weighed than Nino is used to with Ohno and he knows what it’s meant to be filled with. He lets it be instead.

Ohno is staring at his shoes when he says “did you want to take some fish home? It’s Tuesday, isn’t it?” He turns back to meet Nino’s eyes, and Nino’s mind imagines their shoes as a scene from a movie, Ohno’s black boots two steps away from his own, backdropped against the wet concrete.

“Yeah, it’s Tuesday,” Nino echoes. His lips find the shape of a smile, heart high in his chest. Tuesday means dinner with Aiba, sitting at the foot of their couch and playing Super Mario Galaxy until they both fall asleep and wake up at 1 a.m. with drool on their shirts, sleepily coaxing each other to bed.

Nino squints at the way Ohno is silhouetted against the sun. “Boss, I’ll take your most expensive fish!” He declares loudly, throwing his arms into the air.

Ohno looks at him over his massive filleting knife that’s sliced halfway through a giant tuna. Trembling slightly, he chuckles as carefully as he can.

*

It rains so much; August arrives with sheets of it, fickle-minded, on-off-on-off so Nino has to bring an umbrella no matter where he goes. Afterwards it’s always so bright and humid that he can barely recall Tokyo without misted-up café windows and this thickness settled over the city like a cloud.

Aiba works harder.

He’s always worked hard. Nino knows it better than anyone, been there for his all-nighters during university. He deserves the credit after all, for making sure Japan got their Shining Beacon Of Light on the eight o’clock news. Given Aiba’s tendency to subsist solely on conbini karaage and strands of natto pulled straight from a package when left to his own devices, he would probably have died without Nino around.

When Aiba first started out at Fuji TV too, he’d put in more hours than everyone else in total. Soon, Nino got used to him to falling asleep in the middle of conversations, acquired an instinctive reflex of grabbing fabric whenever Aiba listed sideways heavily, his hand curled loosely around Nino’s wrist as if he was still listening.

Then, Aiba had worked everywhere. Nino got annoyed every time he pulled out cue cards from a pocket while they waited for the bus, complaining loudly does our friendship mean nothing to you? although he knew Aiba did it to his mother too. Whenever Nino asked, Aiba would hold his hands up in joking surrender and with a wry smile, say I wasn’t born smart like you, Nino-chan. Worst still was, I don’t want to pull everyone down.

It made Nino want to work harder too when he wasn’t busy being worried, or irritated, or both. He started putting in more hours at Keikarou between classes, holding up his own in the line as well as he could, despite the fact that everyone else in the kitchen had at least five years of experience on him. He borrowed Aiba’s parents’ cookbooks faster than he could read them. At night, when a hush finally settled, they fell around the old creaky table at the back of the kitchen, after everyone had gone to bed and Aiba’s mother set a pot of tea in front of them with stern words not to stay up too late.

Over the smell of onions and garlic imprinted into the wood, they sat hunched over books. Aiba never said anything all the times Nino pushed his feet into his lap; he only took a moment to rebalance himself before he dipped fingertips into the sore bits of muscle and skin, kneading away until Nino wriggled his toes and scribbled thank you untidily in the margins of Aiba’s essay draft. In return Nino made sure Aiba didn’t wake up in the kitchen with a crick in his neck. Countless times, he'd half-lead, half-manhandle Aiba’s uncoordinated lankiness to his futon while Aiba draped himself over his shoulders, murmuring unintelligible affection and gratitude.

But now everyone knows his face - Aiba Masaki of the eight o’clock news, Japan’s precious Aiba-chan from Chiba - everyone wants a piece of him, a smile, a handshake, an imitation or two, no matter how poorly executed. Nino can’t blame them; no one does embarrassing gag impressions quite as unashamedly as Aiba. But so far he’s done two car commercials, been a hit on variety TV, and appeared on NHK to discuss falling oil prices. It's difficult to be logical about it when there is hardly any of him left for Nino, if at all.

It’s only ever Tuesday night dinners when they get the chance, gathering unspeakingly in their tiny apartment while the world is caught up outside, glaring streetlamps gleaming off wet road surfaces. Jun is getting busy with the middle of his final year at Hattori but he makes it to work every Tuesday just so Nino can keep this - Aiba swaying in his ridiculously expensive Balmain high-top trainers, smelling like new car leather and stale air-conditioner air. In the dim light of their genkan, Nino charts the planes of shadow cradling Aiba’s jawline.

He says I’m home subdued like they're five again and sharing secrets at a sleepover and Nino is mesmerised by the way his face gives way, caves into quiet joy, features softening immeasurably even as he’s trying to get his shoe off.

And Nino’s never been good with words of these sort, to put his own happiness into sappy greetings, into it’s good to see you again, I’m glad you’re here. It's embarrassing so natural progression takes over after that; Nino cooks.

He makes comfort food meant to build and lend strength. All week his thoughts slip to Tuesday dinners until he finally gets to make them: salted porridge with sliced mackerel, translucent and fresh from Ohno’s boat. He calls his grandmother for her nikujaga recipe, and serves potatoes and lamb over steaming rice. The week after there’s sweet curry with chunks of apple, honey and caramelised pork belly tumbling over a mountain of rice, gravy soaking in and pooling at the bottom of their plates. After a particularly hard week, Nino even makes karaage and croquettes for a beer snack. He crumbs handfuls of mashed potato and drops them into hot oil, and just to be a little fancy, he whips up a garlic aioli, adding mustard for a kick that Aiba loves.

He makes coq au vin with one of Jun’s Authentic French recipes - bribed from a lover named Marcel in Paris - sits reading Shounen Jump by the stove while the kitchen balloons out with smoky bacon oil. Halfway through, Nino has to throw open the windows to let the rain-tinged late-summer air wash in. A sudden breeze shakes the seedlings of Aiba’s herb garden on the windowsill, paints the walls in unexpected reprieve. Their apartment is drenched by the time Aiba gets home, awash by the billowing smells of chicken and garlic browned in a Dutch iron pan and finally Cognac and Burgundy burning out in simmering gravy over the fire.

They always have dinner at the dining table; Aiba insists.

“After all,” he says. “Nino’s gone through the trouble of making all this food, I don’t want to be distracted.”

They eat slow, sometimes silently, Aiba butting his shoulder gently against Nino’s between mouthfuls, grin so wide that Nino warns against dropping half-chewed food back into his plate. (More specifically he’d threatened to kill him but details.)

Other times Nino is the one waiting while Aiba trips over his words, his speech scattered with long pauses as he attempts to recall the slant of a colleague’s smile and the exact phrasing of a young woman’s dream. In his exhaustion, his voice follows the rhythms of news reports by habit, reaching out instead for the cue cards of their histories.

In those moments, Nino presses their thighs together, wishing they could somehow get closer. He listens, listens, listens, lets every word fall where it may. Under the table, he’s clenching his fists, imagining Aiba’s voice to be fine sand draining out from the spaces between his fingers, gathering, whirling around their ankles - staying.

*


They make a plate of dessert spaghetti Bolognese, for Jun’s birthday at the very end of August.

Everyone’s plotted for months to come up with it, texting Nino and Anne furtive suggestions before Jun arrives or while Ooshima distracts him by relentless questions about wine pairings. (At one point, she accidentally blurts out “what would you pair with me?” Thankfully, Jun is substantially engrossed by the idea of infusing shortbread tarts with persimmon wine to catch it.)

On the night of the 29th, Becky is tasked with making sure Jun doesn't get into work unexpectedly early, as he is wont to do.

Eikura arrives with Aoi in the morning, and while Aoi makes actual spaghetti Bolognese for their staff dinner, Eikura pipes white chocolate through long tubes and leaves them to set in an ice bath in the chiller. She then reduces a raspberry jam over the stove, leaving it to chill rapidly in the freezer. Afterwards, she pulls together a dark chocolate truffle mix by whisking hot cream and chocolate, then infuses the mixture with some raspberry liquor.

Sakamoto hones in immediately when he arrives, latching on with his refined radar for expensive alcohol. In his panic, Inocchi yells about a fire in the dining area. Nino watches the regret dawn almost right after, and it only barely works.

When the truffle mix and jam have cooled, Nino helps Eikura shape them into tiny chocolate meatballs, injecting raspberry jam into their middles and rolling them in cocoa powder to add a hint of bitterness as well as amplify the unevenness of their surfaces. Aoi watches him, swinging from the edge of a bench top as the kitchen fills with the smells of baking meatballs, fresh basil, Bolognese sauce bubbling on the stove. The sous-vide machines start chiming as the rest of the staff start filing in.

"I'm going to brown the beef cheeks!" Aoi announces to no one in particular, so accustomed to working alone that Nino catches the surprise that flashes across her face when Fukushi goes "Roger that!" in his best Matsumoto Jun voice. To be fair, it is spot-on.

By the time Becky gets there around 3pm, they’re working like a well-oiled machine, Nino dabbling alternately between the savoury and sweet factions. The strawberry, basil and orange zest are blitzing in the blender with more of the berry liquor that lures Sakamoto back into the kitchen again. He swipes it from the bench and pours some into a glass labelled Nagano-san, downing a quarter of the amount in a single gulp.

Nino watches Becky carefully push out the chocolate noodles with a syringe, layering the strands in circles on the bottom of a frozen white plate so it looks like spaghetti. In the middle, she arranges the truffle balls and squirts the strawberry syrup over the top with a squeeze bottle, adding a sprig of basil and grating white chocolate over the top to complete the illusion.

"This is incredible," Inocchi marvels when they're done. He bends down to examine the dish closely, his eyebrows knotted together comically. He stares for so long that Becky tells him off for exhaling warm breath on their masterpiece.

At dinnertime, Aoi serves up dinner in individual dishes instead of sharing plates like she usually does. She pushes Jun's in front of him in hopes that he won't touch the plate and realise how cold it is. The plating for every dish is impressively identical. Jun narrows his eyes, making deliberate and prolonged eye contact with everyone in the kitchen just in case someone could be intimidated into confessing.

Nobody does - though Hasegawa excuses herself for a moment to chortle gleefully in the washroom. She returns red in the face, just in time to watch Jun twirl stiff white chocolate noodles around his fork. No one is actually chewing, or breathing - just watching, waiting for the moment of truth.

As if he knows, Jun pauses. "Either this is cold undercooked package pasta, Aoi-san, or something else entirely. I'm really hoping it's the latter." Then he lifts his fork to his mouth, chews thoughtfully, the very face of seriousness, staring intently at some spot in the distance.

The facade cracks.

Jun doubles over in laughter while all the floor staff burst through the kitchen door, led by Inocchi in an off-tuned but very enthused rendition of HAPPY BIRTHDAY MATSUJUUUUUN.

Already tipsy, Sakamoto stumbles out with Nagano’s hand around his elbow after dinner and between the both of them, get enough raspberry liquor for everyone to have after service.

Later Jun, forced into giving a speech, says "Nino, you're the best sous chef anyone could ever asked for. Thank you for working so hard especially when I've been so busy with school." He holds up his glass and raises him a toothy grin, limbs loosened by the alcohol. It's past midnight, and Jun's eyes are liquid warmth, grateful and happy.

Nino replies with loud smacking kisses, coupled with an elaborate curtsy just for good measure. If his eyes are watery, it’s from the smoky grill and nothing else.

 

*
Aiba gets three days off in September. His manager tells him to go have fun, but instead he decides to hole up at home watching all the Koshien matches that he made Nino record for him in summer. Somehow, his body also decides that it's high-time he's had a cold so Nino finds him on the couch, sniffling miserably into toilet roll paper because they've run out of tissues.

"Nino, you're back! I got three days off," He says when Nino gets through the door on Tuesday night. It's not even Tuesday anymore, it's 3:29 on Wednesday morning and Nino's key is jammed in the lock. He jiggles it irritably until it's released.

"Three days? That's practically luxurious, can Japan afford to go three days without you." The crowd goes wild, except the volume has been turned down low due to the late hour so it's quieter. Still, Aiba turns back to it, wad of toilet paper pressed to his nostrils and cheers equally softly. Nino kicks off his shoes. "Are you watching Koshien? Don't you know which school won this year? Wait, didn't you do the announcement for that?"

Aiba groans in agreement, voice hoarse, and offers no further explanation. The apartment is dark, albeit the flickers and flashes of television light, casting unearthly shadows on Aiba's face. Nino sighs.

"Are you feeling okay? What's up," He pushes Aiba's fringe upwards to feel at his forehead. It's not too hot, but not cool either. Aiba exhales shakily, leaning into the contact and his eyes flutter shut.

"Flu," Aiba answers, fingers latching into Nino's jacket pocket. He’s looking up at Nino now, shifting over on the couch and patting the space beside him, movement lethargic. "Tell me about your day, Kazu-kun, I want to know."

Nino slides his hand up and downwards to rest at the base of Aiba's neck, scratching gently as he considers Aiba's expectant gaze. There are dark rings under his bloodshot eyes, and a knot between his shoulders and Nino is seized unexpectedly by an old daydream, in which he’s curled up on the couch with Aiba, but he never imagined it this way: the deep night heavy in his bones and Aiba's eyes glazed over with the effort of staying awake. The opportunity seems almost inconsequential like this.

"Alright, I'm not getting too close though. Some of us have to work tomorrow," he says, relenting even though he's dead on his feet, thoughts already drifting dreamward. His mouth is stale and icky with snatches of tastes, duck jus and pea purée making tired rounds on his tastebuds.

In his room, he strips off his jacket and soiled chef whites, stepping into clean Muji pyjamas. The sweat on his arms make the material stick. There are dirty cups piled high in the kitchen sink; Nino’s too-long sleeves keep catching on the tap when he rinses two out to make them some tea.

His skin still feels weird, tacky but it's an improvement at least, from the deafening chaos of the kitchen. An early morning autumn breeze rustles the leaves by their veranda and stirs around the living room. In this darkness, it’s palpable relief, carrying scents of an earthy clarity after a storm, a calmness that has Nino exhaling against the tea steam over his eyelids.

“Tell me about your day,” Aiba repeats, handing Nino his half-drained cup resolutely. His hands are warm where their wrists brush. Steam has misted up Nino’s glasses. The world is hazy, all faraway streetlights and the remnants of the bacon and artichoke linguine Aoi made for dinner.

Here, Aiba's reaching across the couch for Nino. He hooks hopeful fingers into the bottom pockets of Nino’s pyjamas, all but crawling into his lap. Aiba leans in, tucks his face into Nino’s belly as if he’s still in junior high, still perpetually sickly, under the weather and full of excuses for folding his gangly frame along the angles of Nino’s smaller one. (Nino never called him out on it, just pushed back into his seat so he could sit back while he played Final Fantasy III.)

He feels it every time Aiba breathes out, one wheezing exhale after the other, the stuttering warmth in sync with Nino’s fingers in Aiba’s hair, feeling the feverish heat of his scalp at their very tips.

“I promise I’m listening,” Aiba slurs, muffled. Each word swims, and tension drains from his body as his fingers lose their white-knuckled grip. In that moment, Nino absently bends, almost kisses Aiba’s hairline before he realises the complexities crisscrossed between them. He’d been the one who’d put them there; how irresponsible would it be to do this to Aiba right now when he’s not sure himself.

“It’s okay even if you aren’t,” Nino replies instead, quiet because it doesn’t matter if Aiba hears that either. He understands comfort when it needs to be this way too; not food, but a familiar voice on the edges of one’s consciousness, present, taking up the same amount of space that they’re both accustomed to with each other.

He tracks the trajectory of an out ball on the screen, curls the greasy strands of Aiba’s hair around his pinky idly. “Anne’s brand new husband came to say hi today.” Nino mumbles, occupied by the memory - Higashide bending to fit in their back door and his embarrassed smile when Nino teased him about Anne and his shared samurai obsession. “I think they’re good together, they both like history and they’re both really tall. Their children will be nerdy giants or giant nerds - either way.”

“Ah, that sounds nice,” Aiba snuffles.

“Yeah.” Nino smooths Aiba’s fringe back. It sticks, unfurls reluctantly, tickling Nino’s chin when he falls back into bad habits, and presses his lips in Aiba’s hair. For a long second, he is tempted to give in. Aiba smells like a series of long weeks; unwashed hair, dried sweat, and the comfort that comes after that, after returning home to find sanctuary waiting.

Aiba’s already made a grateful noise at the back of his throat when the realisation, dulled by exhaustion and this unearthly hour, hits.

He does it again.

Outside, crickets are chirping and someone is walking under their building, the scrape of shoes on the asphalt downstairs and a hushed voice talking on the phone. Nino listens to the footsteps as they slowly disappear down the street.

“I can’t carry you back to bed now, Aiba-chan. I’ll break my back,” He whispers, and Aiba just burrows deeper in protest. “Are we just going to fall asleep here and wake up with matching cricks in our necks.”

This time, there is no reply. But tonight Nino doesn’t have the heart to wake him. Instead he slips out and retrieves Aiba’s blanket from under the mess of sleep things on his bed.

When he emerges, Aiba is fast asleep. His too-long limbs thrown outwards haphazardly on the too-short couch, his feet hang off the end of the right armrest while bits of toilet paper are scattered on the worn cushions and his slack face.

On the television screen, the teams lined up, shaking hands.

Nino learns to stop qualifying love.
*

October carries on as it always has; cooler days and longer nights.

The metro floor embraces rain puddles from office shoes, all those hastily wrapped umbrellas with crumpled plastic covers folded inwards, rolled up on themselves. Nino’s used to this change of pace; his city favours oden carts at this time of year, warm sake and soy sauce-tinged dashi broth clouding up the tips of skyscrapers. It grows accustomed to the weight of heavier clothes. When he stands in the peak hour crowd to get to work, its usual push and pull is bolstered by scratchy cotton and squishy down vests, counterpoint only to the smooth edges of his PASMO against hand calluses.

Similarly, Nino carries on. The cooler weather means more people want romantic dinners and walking home hand in hand on quiet streets, so the restaurant suddenly has a waiting list a mile long. He has barely enough time, even with getting in an hour earlier than usual to make up for the increased numbers and Jun’s absence during prep. Every evening, he’s managing the pass from the start, calling out orders and syncing dish sets to tables, until Jun gets there and then everyone shuffles around a little so Nino can get his station back. (He does become exceptional at it though. Aoi even makes him a badge that says BEST CHEF MATSUMOTO SUBSTITUTE in assertive block letters. It does much to ground Nino.)

On several occasions, Ohno’s turned up at the back door around 4pm, holding his phone up to the sunlight, so they could see that it displayed a Very Important Sakamoto Email asking in too many words that he come help out. Nino’s always extra thankful to have Ohno back. His presence calms everyone, helps service pass with less broken plates and makes Jun yell less too.

In between shifts at the restaurant and snoring into his mattress in his whites, Nino hardly finds time to cook, so it’s mostly Aiba’s ever-reliable bowls of rice, restaurant leftovers and reheated onigiri from their frozen stash, flavours up to lucky draw. Nino reckones they're part of a very small demographic of home cooks who have to make use of pumpkin puree and sous-vide beef cheeks. Sometimes Nino imagines Aiba’s mother finding out their dismal dietary habits, it scares him into making Aiba help with infrequent yet unnecessarily extravagant meals that tick all levels of the Nutritional Spinning Top.

Then last Friday, as Nino was alighting Jun’s car at Ginza station, Jun had handed Nino a tiny collection of pages wordlessly. At first glance, it seemed incomprehensible, cobbled together by MT tape, twine and sheer willpower but upon inspection, Nino found that it was made up of 10-minute one-pot recipes.

The benefits of each one had been detailed in print so small, the marus and ten-tens were illegible, and Nino had to squint under the harsh fluorescent lights of the platform. On the last page, there was a set of reminders - Jun’s usual spiel - drink more water, less alcohol, spinach juice etc.. Jun had messaged him on the train, Sorry it’s messy, writing on commutes is difficult. And Nino hadn’t been able to resist replying, nice to see your fancy hattori education coming to good use and also i love you too.

Jun had probably meant that anyway - if adapting his signature ratatouille recipe for Aiba’s slow cooker hadn’t been clear enough.

*

They are on the couch when Aiba says something about it. On retrospect, he’d probably been turning it over on his mind for days, perhaps weeks.

It’s late in the year, mid-November. The chill has settled in properly and Aiba’s only ever wearing Nino’s socks again. Tokyo is getting ready for Christmas.

On the calendar on their fridge, Nino has marked Aiba's birthday out in font larger than the one printed for Christmas, green ink seeping through and leaving disfigured interconnecting blots on the cardboard behind. Every time they see each other, Aiba makes it a point to announce the number of days left to Christmas; it's like Nino has his own persistent personal countdown.

But Nino should have seen it coming; Aiba’s always more concerned, more alert and aware than people give him credit for. Nino, caught in the season’s influx of private reservations and trying to complete Dragon Age: Inquisition, had overlooked it.

Plus, those feelings feel like an eternity away now, crowded out by that late night epiphany in September. A quiet joy had replaced the anxiety in his gut. He hadn’t been sure what would follow, but knew for sure he couldn’t wait around for whatever it was - if it came at all.

It's Thursday, and Nino has the day off from filling in for Jun on both Monday and Tuesday. In the background, the television is turned down, background noise, while Matsuko Deluxe talks to an actress about her recent wedding, discusses dual morning routines and eats tamago kake gohan, their chopsticks clicking around clay bowls. It’s no comparison to her late-night television shows edginess-wise, but Nino enjoys her characteristic wit while Aiba, having met Matsuko a few weeks ago, has not stopped talking about how cool she is.

Over the TV, Aiba’s muttering to himself, gnawing at the cap of his pen hard enough to leave teeth marks. His work is scattered across the sofa, stacks slipping onto the ground occasionally with a limp rustle and flop! when he forgets his precarious position, and stretches. Nino sits crosslegged at the coffee table, surrounded by Jun’s preliminary concepts on the menus for next week’s functions - a grandfather’s 70th birthday, a 50th wedding anniversary and some insurance company’s annual staff dinner.

There is an incredible amount of thoughts to get through. To help, Jun’s drawn tiny dishes illustrating his ideas and Nino’s considering what exactly this grandson expected when he wanted the theme to be ‘Memory’, as if all of them had that same one. Nino doesn’t even know how the man looks like. Perhaps he’ll fire off an email of questions for specifics; they are paying an obscene amount amount of money for this one meal after all. He briefly considers going to smoke on the veranda instead of wrestling with this.

“Nino, Ni-chan,” Aiba shuffles around in his little pond of paperwork. Nino hums absently, expanding on Jun’s little doodle of tofu on a bed of pickled root vegetables. “Do you still - have you ever loved me?”

The question doesn’t register at first. Nino’s stuck on thinking about the technicalities involved in using kanten and the consommé method to make a katsudon sauce, then -

What?” He twists his head around to find Aiba’s gaze set on some faraway point on the ceiling. He can’t hear the TV now, over the rush of blood in his ears. Sweat prickles on his spine.

“Have you? Do you still? Romantically, I mean.” Aiba asks, finally meeting Nino’s eyes, his tone the one he used to talk to his tabby kitten when they were eleven, curious, coaxing and gentle. Nino had watched him from across his futon as he cradled her in the cup of his hands but now, he is all at once terrified and relieved and it makes him want to kick Aiba for making him feel this way again. “I mean, I think I know but I don’t want any misunderstandings between us so I’m -”

“Yes,” Nino says, finds himself putting the word out there in the air. And there it hangs, pregnant pause - waiting. The truth escapes him like air from a balloon; now he doesn’t want it back. “I used to at least, now I don’t think so.”

“Aaaah,” Aiba nods as if that explains everything, and Nino imagines it does. Knowing Aiba, he’s probably known all this while and have been busy confirming his hypothesis by compiling every small sliver of evidence. He probably has it in a little notebook somewhere; every Tuesday dinner Nino’s made, every fond expression when they sat with their legs dangling off Aiba’s bed and Nino slapped him gently for saying something ridiculous.

There’s a moment of silence in which Nino almost drifts back to his hypothesised reinvention of the humble katsudon. His attention is torn between calculations of viscosity, a noisy game show on TV and Aiba’s solid presence behind him on their worn salmon cushions.

“If Nino ever wants to kiss me, I’d want to kiss you back too,” Aiba promises firmly and Nino headbutts his knee.

Nobody wants to kiss you,” he snaps, his voice bending unexpectedly from the affection clouding better judgement.

Aiba giggles unfazed. “Ah, you say that but the polls tell a different story.” He threads his fingers into Nino’s hair, scratching lightly.

“Yeah, yeah, we know, Mr. GQ Man of 2013.” Nino leans back against the couch, takes off his spectacles so the world loses focus, becomes looser, more pliable. He yawns and rolls his shoulders, content to watch prime time television through voices alone, with his best friend pressing out the tension knots in his neck.

In retaliation, Aiba nudges Nino’s hip with his foot, wriggling incessantly until Nino grabs hold of his foot. Despite Aiba’s best efforts to escape (and subsequently thrashing his paper piles), Nino proceeds to draw a blurry penis on his big toe, then he claps his hands together and gasps in mock-scandal, Aiba-san, wait till the housewives hear about this!

In five minutes, when Nino settles back down, Aiba will slide onto the cold floor to join him, his knees pulled to his chest, work abandoned momentarily. His fingers will return to the space between Nino’s shoulders, tucking his wrist under Nino’s shirt so the collar stretches. There, Aiba will knead his knuckles into the soreness, patiently pushing until he rubs out a year’s worth of turbulence.

*

Aiba calls his mother on the first Saturday morning in December. Nino hears his voice, hazy through the fog of half-awakeness. He rolls over, pushes his face into the cool surface of his pillow and listens to the familiar rise and fall of Aiba’s inflection around his name lulling him back to sleep.

 

 

 

Epilogue

The March morning Jun graduates, Nino gets up early to make banh xeo; sweet chilli and fish sauce drizzled within thin rice crepes, overflowing with cilantro, daikon, crunchy bean sprouts, soft fatty pork and tender shrimp. He doesn’t have work today; Sakamoto decided that their beloved Matsujun graduating was worth giving everyone a day off so they can all go.

By the time Aiba stumbles into the kitchen, Nino’s striped neon green and pink socks half off his feet and his overgrown fringe hanging in front of his face, Nino’s done cooking. He’s even kept a portion in a container, complete with a tiny box for the sauce, for Jun to have after the ceremony because he only drinks spinach juice blended with oats before high-anxiety situations.

These days, when he sets eyes on Aiba, bleary in the mornings but keen and kind and willing, Nino still wants except not in the way he’s used to. Maybe it was never romantic to start with, or maybe Nino just didn’t notice when he was learning to love in new ways. But by now, even the sensation of that ache seems faraway and foreign.

Aiba drives them to Hattori Nutrition College, fighting traffic with the practised ease uncharacteristic of someone who, for a living, gets ferried to places in black vans. There, Jun finds them in the courtyard before they can spot him among the crowd of long robes and square hats.

“We did it,” Jun says, eyes infinitely bright and Nino thinks about the past year of waiting by his phone just in case.

“Not yet, but almost,” Nino gets out, before he is swept into a crushing group hug. Eikura’s trying to sing happy graduation to the tune of happy birthday and Aoi is laughing at her. Inohara keeps telling Jun how proud he is while Ohno’s voice warbles like he’s about to cry. Aiba, caught in this sudden situation, grins against Nino’s ear.

And Nino thinks, blinking sunlight from his eyes that this is it. He’s happy.

 

fin.