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Cooking Lesson

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Akihito collapses onto Asami’s chest, panting. He’s just starting to drift off to sleep when Asami rolls them both over, ready for another round.

Akihito glances at the clock. “No way. It’s already 3 o’clock, and I’ve got to be up by 11.”

“I thought you didn’t have to work tomorrow,” Asami says, nuzzling Akihito’s neck.

Akihito removes Asami’s hand from his nipple. “I don’t, but Kou’s coming over for a cooking lesson at noon.”

Asami growls. “Postpone it.” One of his hands wanders down to Akihito’s hip.

“No way. Besides, I’m exhausted. You got home at midnight, remember?”

“And?” Asami asks.

“And what? Isn’t three hours enough for you?”

“There could never be enough,” Asami says, his mouth moving down to the nipple his hand was removed from.

Akihito tries to push Asami off him, but he can’t move the older man. “Well, maybe for you, but my body was already at ‘enough’ two rounds ago. Seriously, I’m tired.”

“Just one more time,” Asami cajoles. “I can wake you up.” His hand moves lower.

“Onion,” Akihito says in exasperation.

Asami immediately freezes, looking at Akihito. He reluctantly rolls off Akihito, lying on his side facing him. “Seriously? I’m still ‘awake,’ and you’re halfway there.”

Akihito shrugs. “Why didn’t you just finish when I did? I could tell you were holding yourself back.” He tries not to look at Asami’s arousal, knowing that if he sees it, his resolve to be finished for the night will weaken.

Asami reaches for a cigarette.

Akihito narrows his eyes as he watches Asami light the cigarette with more focus than required. “You- you’re hiding something. You actually have a reason.”

Asami gives him his most arrogant gaze. He blows a stream of smoke before asking, “What are you babbling about now?”

“You can’t fool me. You couldn’t last another round either, could you? That’s why you held back? That’s so stupid.”

Asami’s eyes flash. “Don’t underestimate me,” he growls, sucking deeply on his cigarette.

“I’m not.” Akihito rolls his eyes. “Believe me, I know how ridiculous your stamina is.”

He continues to watch Asami from the corner of his eye. Asami takes two more drags on his cigarette before stubbing it out aggressively in the ashtray on the nightstand.

“Wait. You’re seriously…” Akihito trails off.

“Seriously what?” Asami grouches.

“Is that part of your need to be in control? You always have to outlast me?”

“Not always,” Asami says.

“No? I can only think of one time where you came first – and that was one-sided, anyway, so it doesn’t even count.”

Asami shifts uncomfortably. “I can’t believe you’re going to leave me hanging like this, after all the times you were satisfied.”

Akihito continues to eye him. “Are you worried about ED or something?”

“I don’t have ED. Isn’t that obvious?” Asami snaps.

“I know. It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it, but… I don’t really get it. Do you just like to do it that much? Why hold back so much? In three hours, you’ve only come once.”

“We could make it two,” Asami suggests.

“Even once is enough for me,” Akihito continues. “There are plenty of other things to do besides that.”

“Nothing as fun,” Asami says.

“Sure there are. Is it really that fun when you’re holding back? To me, sometimes it feels like…”

“Like what?” Asami asks. He reaches out and smooths Akihito’s hair.

“Like you’re rejecting me.” Akihito looks down at the sheets, embarrassed.

Asami caresses Akihito’s cheek and gently raises his chin so that he can look him in the eye. “That’s not it,” he says.

“Then what is it?” Akihito asks, the fierce stubbornness back in his eyes.

I walked right into that one, Asami thinks. He sighs. He looks away. “I can’t say. But it has nothing to do with you.”

“Of course it does,” Akihito presses. It’s affecting their relationship, after all.

Asami continues to stare off into space.

“Is it really that bad?” Akihito asks. “You can tell me anything, you know.”

“I have a certain reputation to uphold,” Asami says.

“You don’t have to worry about that here.” Akihito smooths Asami’s hair.

“I always have to worry about it,” Asami says.

“So it’s an ego thing?”

Asami doesn’t say anything.

“Well, now I’m curious, and you know what happens when I get curious.”

“What?” Asami asks, still not looking at Akihito.

“I’m a reporter. I keep digging until I come up with an answer. And if you don’t tell me, I’ll end up reading stuff online and probably come to the totally wrong conclusion.”

When Asami doesn’t say anything, Akihito grabs his phone from his nightstand.

“Hmm. ‘Delayed ejaculation can be caused by certain birth defects, injury, infection…’ When was the last time you were tested for an STI?”

“I don’t have an STI,” Asami says hotly.

“Are you sure? When was the last time you were tested?”

“Right before I went to Hong Kong,” Asami says.

“Oh.” Of course they would have tested Asami when he had his surgeries to remove the bullets. “I haven’t been,” Akihito says quietly.

“Why would you need to?” Asami asks.

Akihito doesn’t want to say, but Asami is scrutinizing him. Finally, Akihito whispers, “Feilong.”

A storm passes over Asami’s face, but he reaches out and smooths Akihito’s hair. “That’s a good idea. Do you want me to go with you?”

“No.” Akihito shakes his head. That would be even more awkward. His face is on fire, so he picks up his phone and starts to read again. “Other causes of delayed ejaculation include psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety, or problems in your relationship.”

Asami grabs Akihito’s phone and places it on his own nightstand. “I don’t have delayed ejaculation.”

“You don’t? Then why–”

Asami cuts him off. “I just want to make sure I can satisfy you as many times as you want.”

“But I already told you, once is enough for me. And it’s not as satisfying if I know you’re holding yourself back. I want you to be satisfied, too.”

Akihito’s face is still aflame. He rolls onto his side so that he’s facing Asami, moving closer so that Asami can’t see his face. His hand accidentally brushes against Asami’s arousal, which is slowly starting to fade.

“Sorry,” he mutters.

Asami strokes his hair again. “What if you change your mind?”

“Hmm?” Akihito asks. He’s getting sleepy again. “I really am tired; I’m not going to, sorry.”

“Not just tonight, but whenever. What if one round isn’t enough for you?”

“I’m not the insatiable one here. Why are you putting this on me?” Akihito looks at Asami and it finally clicks. “Did that happen to you before?”

Asami looks away.

“It did, didn’t it?” Akihito asks, stunned.

Asami rolls over so his back is to Akihito. Akihito sits up and strokes Asami’s hair.

“Hey. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but even if that happened, we could find other things to do. It happens to everyone on occasion.” Akihito racks his brain for an example to make Asami feel better, but it actually hasn’t happened to him. Not with Asami, and it doesn’t really count with Feilong.

“I was in high school,” Asami mumbles. “It was my first time with a man. We’d been drinking. A lot. He wanted a second round, but… I didn’t have the tolerance I have now.”

Akihito doesn’t say anything; he just continues to stroke Asami’s hair.

“I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” Asami says. “Only two people on earth know, and I’ve occasionally thought about turning that into one.”

“You still want to kill him over it?” Akihito asks. “He must have really hurt you. I’m sorry.”

“He threatened to tell the whole school.”

“But he didn’t? What stopped him?” Akihito isn’t sure he wants to know.

“He didn’t want the whole school to know he enjoys getting his ass plowed.”

“Oh.” Akihito starts to giggle.

Asami stiffens.

“I’m not laughing at you,” Akihito assures him. “It’s just weird to think of you as an insecure teenager. It’s hard to imagine you ever weren’t the all-powerful Asami Ryuichi who takes no shit from anyone, because no one would even dare to think about giving him any shit.”

“Except for you,” Asami points out.

“Well, yeah. But I give everyone shit. I’m an equal-opportunity shit-giver.” Akihito giggles again.

Asami chuckles. “Takaba Akihito, Official Tokyo Shit Dealer. Call now to have shit delivered today.”

“Or tomorrow morning, on your front stoop,” Akihito amends.

Asami rolls back over and hugs Akihito, kissing him on the temple. “Thanks.”

Akihito can feel Asami’s arousal swelling back to fullness again. “I’ll take care of it for you this time,” he says. “But next time, why don’t you come with me, and we’ll stick to fewer rounds?”

“But we so rarely get to do it,” Asami gripes.

“If it wasn’t so taxing, maybe we could do it more often,” Akihito counters.

 

At 11am, Akihito slaps his alarm off. “Only seven hours of sleep on a day off,” he grumbles. He rolls over and sees Asami sitting up, reading a report.

“You didn’t have to schedule the cooking lesson so early,” Asami points out.

“Noon is hardly early. You didn’t have to keep me up so late last night.” Akihito rests his head on Asami’s chest.

Asami puts the report on his nightstand and pulls Akihito up for a kiss.

After a few minutes, Akihito gets up. “I better shower.”

“You’ve got time,” Asami says.

“Thanks to someone, I’ll be moving slower than usual, and I’ve got to get dressed and cook and eat breakfast before Kou gets here.”

“I can wash your back for you,” Asami says.

“As long as it’s just washing my back, sure,” Akihito says.

Asami smirks as he watches Akihito pull on the boxer-briefs that ended up on the floor last night. He doesn’t bother putting anything on as he follows Akihito to the bathroom.

 

When they finally return to the bedroom to get dressed, Akihito takes one look at the clock and swears. “I’ve only got ten minutes to dress, cook, and eat.”

“Kou will probably be hungry, right? So just cook something simple and eat it for your first lesson.”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “Fine. But if you want to eat, you have to participate in the lesson, too.”

Asami raises his eyebrows. “Are you implying I need cooking lessons?”

“No, I’m flat out saying it. You wasted a whole pack of eggs trying to make simple fried eggs. And you somehow burnt half a loaf of bread in a toaster that was already set to make perfect toast.” Akihito pulls a pair of boxer-briefs and jeans out of the dresser.

Asami walks to the back of the closet to grab a polo. When he emerges, he asks, “You’re not going to mention the awful coffee?”

“That goes without saying.”

Asami sighs. “Fine. I’ll admit that I’m a bit lacking in the culinary department, and since I no longer have a housekeeper, knowing how to cook a few simple things might be beneficial considering you keep the house well stocked.”

“You had a housekeeper?” Akihito asks, pulling a clean t-shirt over his head.

“How did you think I kept the place clean before you moved in?” Asami pulls on a pair of khaki pants.

“I- I don’t know. I guess I never really thought about it, but I sure can’t picture you cleaning it yourself. But I can’t exactly picture you letting someone into your personal space, either.”

“She always came when I wasn’t home.”

Akihito heads back to the bathroom to fix his hair. He’s just washing the excess gel off his hands when there’s a knock at the door.

 

“Are you hungry?” Akihito asks Kou once the three are gathered in the kitchen.

“A little bit. Breakfast was several hours ago.”

“Then we’ll start with something quick and eat it.” Akihito pulls out leftover rice, eggs, butter, ketchup, and canned ham.

“Omurice?” Kou guesses.

Asami makes a slight face that only Akihito detects. Akihito shoots him a subtle look back that says, Tough. That’s what you get for distracting me. “Correct. Actually, first we’ll make a salad to go with it.”

As Akihito pulls out the salad ingredients, he talks about how to select each vegetable at the store. He bought the vegetables last night and put them straight in the fridge, so he demonstrates how to wash each one.

After the vegetables are clean, Akihito claps his hands. “Oh, I almost forgot! It’s helpful to wear an apron, especially if you’re frying or boiling anything, in case it splatters.” He grabs the plain apron his mother gave him and ties it around his waist. He hands Asami the simple black one that he found in the pantry (presumably worn by the former housekeeper).

“Sorry, Kou, this is the only one I have for you to wear.” Akihito pulls out his last apron from the pantry, a pink frilly thing with ruffles and hearts on it.

Kou chokes. “No way.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Akihito deadpans. “It was a gift from my two best friends, after all.” He smiles sweetly, holding it out to Kou.

Kou reluctantly takes it. As he wraps it around his waist, he mutters, “It was Takato’s idea…”

Akihito notices that Asami is eying the apron with a little too much interest. Apparently when he had Akihito’s things moved to the penthouse, the movers didn’t go through the already-packed box that had the apron in the bottom.

“If you don’t have one at home, you can take that one home with you,” Akihito tells Kou.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t, really. It’s yours,” Kou says.

“I insist. As you can see, we already have enough aprons here, and you need one, don’t you?” Akihito says. He gives Kou a look that says ‘You will take it if you know what’s good for you.’

“Well… I don’t really cook often enough to need one,” Kou tries.

“But that’s the whole point of this, right? And if Mari decides to cook for you, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to offer her an apron?”

Kou gulps. There’s no way Mari would be happy to see such a frilly apron in her boyfriend’s apartment – but for now, politeness dictates that he pretend to accept the gift. I’ll find a way to ‘forget’ it when I leave.

 

As they prepare the salad, Akihito makes both Asami and Kou try their hand at each part.

“I know how to slice vegetables,” Asami grouses.

He does, too, slicing them quickly into even pieces nearly as fast as Akihito can, so Akihito makes Kou do most of the work.

“It’s going to be a lot slower if I do it,” Kou points out.

“That’s okay. You’ll get faster with practice. Make sure you curl those fingers out of the way.”

Next, Akihito pulls out the ingredients for the goma salad dressing: sesame seeds, rice vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce.

When Kou tries shaking the pan as he toasts the sesame seeds, he accidentally spills a third of them out of the pan.

“You can also just stir them with chopsticks,” Akihito says, showing him how.

During Asami’s turn, Asami manages to shake the pan without spilling any, but he has a few near misses.

“How do you make it look so easy?” he grumbles.

“Practice. It’s all about snapping the wrist so they go back towards the center of the pan, but you can’t actually move the pan or it won’t catch them.”

Asami grunts, but he gets better at it.

“Smell that? And see how they’re getting a little brown? They’re done,” Akihito says.

“Don’t you want them to get darker?” Asami asks.

“They’ll continue cooking even after you remove them from the flame, because the pan is still hot. We need them to cool just a bit before we grind them.” Akihito sets the pan on the countertop.

They measure out the other ingredients and mix them. By this time, the seeds are ready, so Akihito teaches them how to grind them using a mortar and pestle.

“I don’t have one of these,” Kou says.

“Mmm,” Akihito says. “I think I still have my old one, so I’ll give you that. You can use it for a lot of things.”

Asami grinds the seeds aggressively.

“Alright, that’s enough. We’re not making tahini,” Akihito says. He takes the mortar back and loosens the seeds with a spoon. “Next time, try to grind them a little more gently. But this should still taste good. We’ve got a nice mix.”

He adds a little water to the ground seeds and teaches Kou and Asami how to whisk. Once the dressing is done, they taste it.

“Can we make it a bit sweeter?” Kou asks.

“It’s sweet enough,” Asami says.

Akihito pours some of the dressing into a separate bowl. “Add just a little more sugar at a time. It probably won’t take much.”

Kou gets a heaping teaspoon of sugar. “This much?”

“I said a little!” Akihito shakes most of the sugar off. “We’re not making cake, just salad dressing. Try this much.”

After whisking it in, Kou says, “This is perfect.”

They toss the salad ingredients with the dressing (Asami mixing his own in the smaller bowl, while Kou mixes his and Akihito’s shares). Once the salads are finished, Akihito explains the steps for making the omurice. “Especially once we get started on the eggs, it’s important to move quickly. We’re using leftover rice, but I’ll be showing you how to make rice after we eat, so you’ll be able to have good leftover rice to start with the next time you want to make this.”

When Kou tastes the fried rice, he says, “It needs more ketchup.”

“Remember that you’ll be adding ketchup to the top,” Akihito says.

“It already has too much ketchup,” Asami says.

“But it needs more!” Kou insists.

Akihito and Asami mound their portions of the rice onto their plates, and then Akihito lets Kou add more ketchup to his.

“Don’t add too much,” Akihito warns, but Kou gives it a healthy squirt. “Mix it quickly and then plate it as soon as it’s mixed, or the rice will get mushy.”

Kou struggles to mix the ketchup in, and by the time he plates it, his rice is a little plumper than Akihito’s and Asami’s.

Next, Akihito explains what he’s doing as he makes his omelette. When it’s done, he slides the omelette onto his rice.

“Isn’t that way too runny?” Asami asks as Akihito slides a knife down the center and egg runs down into the rice.

“The rice is still warm, and the omelette is still warm, so it’ll keep cooking. If you leave it in the pan until it’s done, it’ll get really rubbery as it continues to cook on the rice. Just like the sesame seeds, eggs continue to cook even after you remove them from the heat. That’s true for pretty much all foods, but eggs are one of the worst for that.”

Asami tries next.

“Alright, time to plate it,” Akihito says.

But Asami stubbornly continues to cook his omelette.

“I’m not going to trade plates with you,” Akihito says. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

After another minute, Asami slides his omelette over his rice.

Kou can’t seem to keep his chopsticks off the egg, and his omelette ends up looking more like scrambled eggs.

“It’s okay; it’ll still taste good,” Akihito tells him. “Go ahead and plate it now.”

Kou follows Akihito’s instructions, though he looks dubiously askance at the runny egg lumps as they land on his rice.

Akihito squirts ketchup on his omurice in a zigzag pattern.

“You can add it to mine, too,” Asami says.

Akihito tries to hand him the ketchup, but Asami raises his eyebrows. “Do you really think I don’t know how to squirt ketchup?” Asami asks.

Akihito rolls his eyes but squirts the ketchup on Asami’s omelette.

Asami frowns.

“What?”

“I wanted you to write something.” Asami takes his plate and his salad and goes into the dining room.

Kou reaches out for the ketchup bottle, but Akihito doesn’t hand it over.

“You should probably taste yours first,” he suggests. He brings his omurice, salad, and the ketchup bottle to the table, and Kou follows him.

“Itadakimasu,” Kou says. He looks down at his omurice. “Hey, the egg doesn’t look so bad now!” He takes a tentative bite that’s mostly omelette and just a little rice. “Not bad.”

He takes a bigger bite, this time mostly of rice, and makes a slight face.

“Too much ketchup?” Akihito asks, grinning.

“Just a little,” Kou says. “And a little mushy. It’s not terrible, though.” He continues to eat, carefully making sure each bite has a good balance of omelette and rice.

Asami has a little trouble breaking off a piece of omelette.

“How’s your omelette?” Akihito asks innocently.

Asami tastes it. “Rubbery,” he admits.

Akihito bites his tongue so that he doesn’t say “I told you so.”

“How’s yours?” Kou asks.

“Delicious,” Akihito says.

Kou reaches over and snags a bite of Akihito’s. “It really is. I should have listened to you about the ketchup.”

Asami also reaches over and snags a bite. “Those eggs are perfect. I thought they’d be too runny.”

“Hey!” Akihito protests, raising his plate into the air. “Lay off; this is mine.”

“I’ll give you some of mine,” Asami offers, taking some from his plate and putting it on Akihito’s.

“I don’t want it,” Akihito grumbles. He pokes the rubbery omelette. “Is this how you used up all the eggs making fried eggs?”

“It’s not my fault they kept overcooking,” Asami says.

“You didn’t think that maybe you should cook them a little less after the first time?”

“I followed the recipe exactly; it’s not my fault it was imprecise.”

“There’s no such thing as precision in cooking. There are too many variables.”

“You’re a scientist now?” Kou asks.

Akihito shrugs. “I guess, yeah. Cooking is basically like an experiment. Different stoves, different pans, ambient temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, how fresh your ingredients are, the ratio of the various ingredients… So many things can affect how things cook. You just have to keep practicing to know how to fix things. There are definitely general rules for things like how long you cook something, but it’s also a matter of personal taste, as well, so it’s an art as much as a science.”

Kou snorts.

“Take the salad, for example. You wanted it sweeter. Asami prefers his less sweet. I didn’t add any extra oil, so there was still quite a bit of tang from the vinegar. A chef has to worry about pleasing the vast majority of people, but if you’re making the salad just for yourself, you can make it to your own taste, regardless of what other people think of it.”

“What if you’re cooking for someone else?” Kou asks.

“Use less flavor. You can always add a bit more at the table, but you can’t take any away. Same goes for cooking things like eggs and meat – you can always cook it longer, but you can’t uncook it. But ask them their preferences, too.”

“Cooking is way more complicated than I thought,” Kou grumbles.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to treat the girl to a nice restaurant meal rather than pretending you’re someone you’re not?” Asami asks.

“Mari knows I can’t cook. I don’t want to learn just to impress her. Aki’s right; it really is time I learn to cook so I can eat better. I don’t want to learn how to make anything fancy, just simple things.”

 

After they finish eating, they carry their dishes into the kitchen and load the dishwasher. “My mom is so jealous of my dishwasher, but I don’t actually know how to use it,” Kou says.

Akihito teaches Kou how to use the dishwasher. “Yours might be a little different, but it should be fairly similar. Just make sure you use the special soap for it. It’s really bad if you try to use regular dishwashing soap in it.”

“What happens?” Kou asks.

“It creates a soap monster,” Asami says.

“Soap monster?”

“It bubbles. A lot,” Akihito says matter-of-factly.

“How much?” Kou asks, grinning.

“Enough to fill the dishwasher with suds,” Akihito says.

“And escape and cover the entire kitchen floor, lying in wait for an unsuspecting person getting a drink in the middle of the night,” Asami adds.

“So who used the wrong soap, and who fell on their ass?” Kou asks, looking back and forth between the two of them.

Neither of them answers, but Akihito’s face starts to turn red.

“So you used the wrong soap?” Kou asks.

“I didn’t know there was a different kind!”

Kou continues to look between them. “And you’re the one who fell on your ass, too?”

“Soap is really slippery.”

Kou starts laughing.

“It’s not funny; it really hurt.” Akihito rubs his tailbone at the memory.

Asami is laughing, too. “Actually, when you were practically swimming in the bubbles trying to stand up again, it was pretty funny.”

“Akihito the Soap Monster! I wish I had a picture of it,” Kou cries.

Akihito glowers at them, but Asami and Kou just laugh harder.

 

They spend the afternoon learning the fundamentals of Japanese cooking. Akihito starts with how to make dashi (both ichiban and niban dashi) from scratch.

“Can’t I just use dashi granules?” Kou gripes.

“They’re not as healthy, they’re more expensive, and they don’t taste as good. And they don’t really save you any time,” Akihito says.

“Is it really necessary for me to be here?” Asami asks. “I think I have some work to do.”

“You said you have the day off, and you also agreed to participate in the lesson if you were going to eat. You ate, so don’t back down now.”

“I already participated in the lesson,” Asami counters. “Before I ate.”

“That was just a warm-up. This is the real lesson. You said you might as well learn.”

“I didn’t know you were going to be such a drill sergeant,” Asami mutters.

Kou snickers.

Akihito raises his eyebrows. “You think I’m being a drill sergeant now? I can show you drill sergeant.”

“No, Akihito-sensei, we’ll behave,” Kou says, bowing. He whispers to Asami, “I’ve met his mom. Trust me on this one.”

 

After they’ve made dashi, Akihito shows them how to make rice.

“You have to rinse it first,” Kou says knowledgeably.

“Everyone knows that,” Asami retorts.

Kou’s face falls.

Asami actually does know all the steps to properly prepare the rice.

“I’m surprised a young master knows how to cook rice,” Akihito teases.

“I wasn’t a young master,” Asami protests.

“Oh, yeah, all Japanese boys go to elite boarding schools with the children of Diet members,” Akihito says, rolling his eyes.

“A lot of Japanese children do live in dorms for high school,” Asami counters. “And my school had some commuters, too. Besides, the cafeteria wasn’t open very late, and we were only allowed to have a rice cooker and a microwave.”

“So you cooked rice instead of cup ramen?” Kou asks incredulously.

“Cup ramen is disgusting,” Asami says.

“Young master,” Akihito mouths to Kou behind Asami’s back.

Kou ducks his head, trying not to laugh.

Asami whips his head around. “What are you doing?” he asks suspiciously.

“Nothing,” Akihito says innocently as he sets the timer on the rice cooker.

 

After learning how to make nimono, sunomono, and baked saba, Kou wipes his brow with his hand and collapses at the table.

“No way am I going to remember all of that, Aki,” he groans.

“You don’t have to. You can use a recipe. But having done it once will make following the recipe easier.”

“What are we going to do with all this food?” Asami asks.

“Eat it for dinner. You’re staying, right?” Akihito asks Kou.

“Of course,” Kou says.

“And then we’ll have the leftovers for bentos or something. And Kou will take some home, too.”

“Can I?” Kou asks.

“Of course. You helped cook it. Want to play some Mario Kart?”

Kou agrees, but Asami excuses himself to do some work in his office.

 

After they’ve been playing for an hour, Akihito broaches the topic of Kou’s apartment. “Are you going to stay there?”

“I still don’t know. It’s a really nice place, and I’m enjoying living there, but I feel like I’m going to get too spoiled, you know? And I don’t like feeling beholden to Asami-san.”

“Is Kirishima-san still looking for alternative places?”

“He sends me a list every week, but so far, I haven’t found anything else suitable in my price range.”

“Then maybe it doesn’t exist.”

“It probably doesn’t. I guess I’m just being too picky.”

“You’re an artist. You need good light. Surely there are other affordable places somewhere in Tokyo that have that.”

“Maybe Kirishima-san isn’t sending them to me on purpose.”

Akihito studies Kou closely. “What do you mean by that?”

“If Asami-san thinks he can buy me out-”

“He wouldn’t do that.”

“Companies don’t do that for contractors.”

“Have you ever had a contract this big before?”

“No. That’s another thing. I feel like maybe I shouldn’t have taken the job.”

“But you’re enjoying it, right?”

“But I don’t feel like I got it based on my own merit.”

Akihito pauses the game and looks at Kou. “That’s definitely not true. Asami doesn’t do things for free.”

“Kirishima-san told me that Asami-san only scheduled that appointment with me so he could figure out why you were so upset after you left my place after taking the checklist.”

“Really?” Akihito shakes his head. “Asami wouldn’t have hired you if he didn’t like your work. He would have come up with a different way to meet you.”

“Like what?”

Akihito shrugs. “Making your scooter run out of gas in front of him and ‘rescuing’ you. Staging a minor traffic accident. Accusing you of spilling something on his suit.”

Kou’s eyes widen.

Akihito reconsiders. “No, he wouldn’t have done any of those. And he wouldn’t just drag you into his office, not if he thought there was even a slight chance I’d find out about it. But there are about a hundred ways he could have met you without talking about your work. Heck, he could have brought you in for an interview and then told you he didn’t like your proposal once it was over. He wouldn’t give such a big project to anyone he didn’t think was capable. He’s got ridiculously high standards.”

Kou shrugs. “I guess so.”

“Look, how about we check out the prices of similar places in the same neighborhood? And I could ask Yoneda if he knows anyone who lives there, and ask if the rent sounds right. I don’t think Kirishima is lying to you, but the best way to find out is to research it ourselves.”

“And you don’t think it’s weird that I’d be living in a place owned by your partner?”

Akihito shrugs. “I can’t see why it would matter. You pay your rent on time and don’t cause any trouble with the neighbors, and the place is well maintained, right? The only down side is I won’t be able to sneak in your window anymore, but I shouldn’t have to do that kind of stuff anymore, anyway. I’m learning to deal with Yoneda and the other guards instead of just ditching them.”

“Alright. Let’s go look at some other places then, and if the price really is reasonable for the neighborhood and I can’t find anything else suitable in the next two weeks, I’ll stop being so stubborn about it.”

“Stubborn about what?” Asami asks from the doorway.

Akihito whips around. “How long have you been listening?”

“Long enough.” Asami shrugs. He turns to Kou. “I get it. You don’t approve of Akihito’s and my relationship, and you think I’m trying to buy your approval. I’m not.”

“It’s not about approving anything,” Kou retorts. “I support Aki one hundred percent, whatever he decides to do or whomever he decides to see – as long as that person cherishes him and makes him happy. You obviously care about him, but you’re still on probation with me, especially after what I saw in the safe house.”

“Fair enough,” Asami says. “I’m not sure if it’ll make any difference to you, but I’m on probation with myself, too. Did Akihito tell you that we’re seeing a counselor together?”

Kou gapes at him for a second before answering. “He said he was seeing a therapist for himself…”

“Well, I am, too, along with the joint therapy. I agree with you; I want Akihito to be happy. He deserves better than I’ve been giving him, so I’m learning how.”

“What if he decides he can’t be happy with you?” Kou challenges.

“Kou!” Akihito cries.

But Asami says, “It’s a fair question.” A ripple of emotion flashes across his face, but Kou can’t make out what it is. “It’s something I hope never happens, but if that day comes…” He trails off, but Kou is looking at him expectantly. “It’s something I’d have to accept. And I’d be glad that he has such caring friends to turn to. Can we eat dinner now? I’m hungry.”

As they head into the kitchen to eat, Kou notices Akihito give Asami’s hand a reassuring squeeze. Asami does seem to cherish Aki… and Aki seems happier now. I’ll cheer them on, and make sure Aki can always come to me if he has trouble.

 

After dinner, Kou says that it’s time for him to go. “Let me grab those leftovers for you,” Akihito says. He folds the frilly pink apron and sticks it in the bottom of a bag, then lines the bag with another bag before putting the leftovers and his old mortar and pestle inside. That apron’s way too dangerous to keep around Asami.

He hands Kou the bag, but Kou asks to use the restroom before they reach the genkan.

Akihito returns to the kitchen. A few minutes later, Kou enters holding a bag. He hands it to Akihito. “Thanks, Aki. This is just something boring…”

“You didn’t have to get me anything,” Akihito says.

“I saw some limited edition Christmas snacks at the convenience store that I knew you’d like,” Kou says.

“Thanks.” Akihito can see a hazelnut Kit Kat package sticking out of the top of the bag.

“And this one’s for you, Asami-san,” Kou says, handing another bag to Asami.

Akihito dries his hands on a towel and shows Kou to the door. When he walks back into the kitchen, he sees Asami holding up the pink frilly apron.

“Oh, hell no!”