Tatsuya sighs and stretches over the bar, leaning like a cat in a sunbeam—Taiga’s almost surprised his nails don’t dig deep into the edge and slash through the finish and the wood itself, but they don’t; Tatsuya flexes his fingers before blinking up at Taiga. That pose should definitely be illegal this close to opening, the way Tatsuya’s limbs are extended and the curve of his waist and ass in that uniform (damn).
Tatsuya straightens up. “We’ve gotten three more reservations canceled.”
“Really?” Taiga frowns.
With the amount of business they normally do, they can afford a few misses here and there. Still, three at a time is never a good sign.
Tatsuya waves a hand at the window. “It’s cloudy. There are supposed to be thunderstorms later. It’s Sunday. Besides, we’ve been doing extra all week.”
They couldn’t refuse their best waitress time off to see her sick mother and they’re probably understaffed on the best of days, but somehow they’ve managed to make do; somehow the rest of the wait staff doesn’t seem to mind too terribly adding in extra shifts here and there (although it can’t hurt that it’s Tatsuya doing the schedule rearrangement) and Tatsuya fills in on wait duty himself when the bar’s not too busy. Even in the kitchen, though, Taiga’s felt like there’s no stopping, like he has to accelerate the pace (not that he can’t work fast but there’s a certain point where he starts to make sloppy mistakes and certain things he can’t look away from for more than a few seconds at a time and he can’t work with too many of those at once) or else the work is going to pile on top of him like dishes in the sink when the dishwasher’s gone out for an extra long cigarette break only worse because it’s not like a part of him is out of commission and can come back and work at five times the speed to reduce the backup to nothing. Sometimes Taiga’s worried that he might break, that he might really mess things up and have to start everything over and push it all back even further.
Maybe a slow day today will be good.
Tatsuya leans over the counter again, propped up on his elbows this time. His eyes are half-lidded, sparkling, and Taiga knows exactly what he’s going for. He doesn’t know if he should be annoyed or not that it’s working, so he just leans in and kisses Tatsuya deep and slow, biting down on the softness of Tatsuya’s lower lip. There’s a slight hitch in Tatsuya’s breath that Taiga only catches because he’s trying to hear and feel it.
And then Tatsuya ducks away before Taiga can pull him back, strolls to the end of the bar and lets himself out. Taiga’s about to reach over to him when Tatsuya puts up a hand.
“We’re opening in a minute. There are people waiting outside.”
Taiga glances through the dark windowpanes. He’s right, of course. There aren’t many, but they’re there. He makes his way back to the kitchen grumbling about how there’s never any time for anything under his breath, although now, before Tatsuya takes their orders, he’ll have a few minutes free to do any last-minute kitchen prep before the orders start coming.
As they’d hoped, it’s a slow day. Tatsuya doesn’t open the bar until two, when one of the regular waiters arrives, but until then it’s just the two of them and a few customers here and there. It’s kind of like when they were first starting out, a bit younger with a plan still rough around the edges that they’d clung to anyway like a ledge with the steep cliff side crumbling beneath them. They’d managed to claw themselves up, Taiga keeping Tatsuya from wallowing in pessimism and giving up when he’d really wanted to and Tatsuya reining Taiga in when he’d gotten too far from the ground. They’d hired a full time wait staff and expanded the menu and the hours as business exploded, and even though they’re making good money and buying efficiently it seems like there’s less and less time for the two of them to really be together.
And in and of itself, that’s ridiculous. They’re separated by one door or less almost constantly, within shouting distance of each other all the time. They make each other meals and work together and go home to the same apartment and sleep in the same bed and yet they so rarely make time for each other.
But today they get to make up for that lost time; Tatsuya delivers the orders and his fingers brush Taiga’s all too non-casually and Taiga checks the frying pan and then lands a kiss on the side of Tatsuya’s neck before the door swings open, and sometimes he glances back to the oven and then before he can even properly turn Tatsuya’s hand is cupping his cheek and his other hand has somehow snaked its way into Taiga’s back pocket and his mouth is quirking upward and then he kisses Taiga for longer than he really should considering the meat needs to be turned and there are probably people waiting to be seated.
And then he disappears and the next person to come back in is the waiter (Taiga tries, not very hard, not to look disappointed). He must have opened up the bar and it’ll be a while before he comes back, not that Taiga has time to really think about it because the mid-afternoon crowd is always bustling (even today is no exception).
Taiga glances up from the simmering pasta sauce to find Tatsuya leaning against the doorframe. It’s pointless to ask how long he’s been watching; he never gives a straight answer. Taiga holds out the wooden spoon and Tatsuya licks the end. He frowns at it and then looks at Taiga.
“Needs more garlic.”
“Really?” says Taiga. He’d already added what he thought was more than enough, but Tatsuya throws a pointed glance at the clove on the cutting board.
“Yeah. It’s way too mild.” Tatsuya says, stepping closer.
Taiga’s tongue feels numb already. “Let me…check,” he breathes.
Tatsuya does taste mild—slightly bittersweet beneath the cheese and traces of herbs still on his tongue. Not that Taiga would complain about that.
The food orders, erratic in the last kitchen hours as usual, have finally stopped. Taiga pokes his head out to find most of the tables cleared and the few remaining diners finishing their last plates of food or downing drinks. One of the waiters is helping manage the load at the bar, which is even more crowded than usual. Taiga nods at one of the other waiters, who’s leaning against the wall next to him.
“A couple more and we’ll have all the plates, Boss.”
“Right,” says Taiga, and then he feels his face flush and ducks back inside the kitchen.
It still feels weird as fuck to hear the waiters call him that. He doesn’t feel like a boss; even though he signs their paychecks and hands them over the food it still feels like this isn’t real and he’s not really in charge, even when he’s tilling the dishwasher to take shorter breaks and the wait staff that he’ll only be a minute or two more with this dish or that. And it’s not like he even really tells them what to do; that’s more Tatsuya’s domain.
And he has to make dinner for himself and Tatsuya, too; as overdue as it is (two in the morning is probably closer to breakfast if it’s any kind of structured meal at all) it needs to be done and damned if he’s not going to do it well. He surveys the kitchen. There’s not much out; of course they’ll need a few things from the cavernous refrigerator but there’s rice, canola oil (he might as well finish this bottle so they can put it out with the recycling tonight), cumin—he’s been meaning to tweak the spicy fried chicken recipe a little bit again, and even though he’s been frying a hell of a lot today (enough so he feels like he’s coated in grease, that it’s soaked through his uniform against his skin and he’s got to look like one of those birds caught in an oil spill that they show on the news) a few more pounds of chicken won’t take too long, especially because the stove’s still hot.
The waiter returns with what he promises are the last of the dining dishes (much to the dishwasher’s relief) just as Taiga’s setting up the rice and searching for the right spices. He’s carefully adding in chili powder when he dimly registers the dishwasher bidding him farewell; he murmurs something back that’s probably incoherent.
He’s got the food on hold in the oven for now and the rest of the kitchen mostly clean (a couple of the pans are still soaking in the sink but they can wait). He changes out of his work uniform in the back; even as greasy as he is it’s much more acceptable to go out in slacks and a relatively clean shirt than his work uniform.
The cool air almost bowls him over; Taiga hadn’t noticed how much he’d been sweating in the kitchen (he’s gotten used to it, after all) and he still feels a little bit out of place among the well-dressed clientele. The crowds have thinned, though; this late even on a Saturday night it’s mostly the usual crowd (there are a few tourists and trend-followers mixed in, of course, thanks mostly to the restaurant being featured in a nightlife magazine about a year ago). He wades through the mess of people up to the bar where Tatsuya’s preparing some sort of mixed drink. He turns around, seemingly not seeing Taiga at first, and after a well-practiced, graceful final flick of the wrist he uncaps the shaker and lifts it into the air as he tilts it over a glass. With a flourish he slides it over the bar. Taiga doesn’t look for the customer’s reaction, though; he’d really rather look at Tatsuya under the dim bar light (the bulb definitely needs changing even though it’s throwing these brilliant, streaky shadows across Tatsuya’s face).
And then Tatsuya turns to him, the corners of his half-pursed lips just barely turning up. (When had he noticed Taiga there?) “The usual?”
“Can I do anything?”
“You can wait for your drink,” says Tatsuya, reaching underneath the bar to fumble until he pulls out a bottle of white rum.
“The waiters all left.”
“Because I can handle it,” says Tatsuya, turning around. “You’ve had a long day.”
“As long as yours.”
They have this argument every night. The one who wins is the one who gets too tired and gives up, and Tatsuya seems unusually sharp for this hour.
“At least let me polish the glasses? Get out the ice?”
Tatsuya shakes his head and walks to the other end of the bar, most likely in search of an open bottle of soda (for someone who runs a place as efficiently as he does, Tatsuya is really disorganized).
“I’ll just have a coffee,” Taiga calls out, and immediately after he says it, he stifles a yawn.
“Just thought I’d ask,” says Tatsuya, smile a little bit too bright and teasing. Damn.
Taiga loses track of time when he’s waiting for his coffee; he just watches Tatsuya work. He’ll never get tired of it, the quick hand motions almost like he’s performing magic tricks when he grabs a glass or pours out a drink, the angle of his fingers against the beer tap and the way he crushes up an empty soda can, hand forming into almost a claw, the outline of his apron and pants against his legs—it’s hard for Taiga to not lean over the bar and try to sneak a glance at his ass.
When the coffee’s fresh, Tatsuya pours it like he pours alcohol, from a ridiculous height and yet it doesn’t splash up—even though he sees it every day it’s never not amazing.
They eat their four-in-the-morning dinner in the kitchen when all the guests are gone; he still didn’t put enough cumin in the chicken although it’s adequate anyway and the lemon sauce and the rice turned out better than usual.
“It’s good,” Tatsuya murmurs.
Tatsuya’s about to lick the lemon sauce off his fingers but Taiga gets there first. It’s even better like this, Tatsuya’s fingers flinching back under his tongue ever so slightly and both of their faces heating up even though the stove’s been off for over an hour.
They close the kitchen and rent out the bar a few nights a year, and only if the price is right (not that they want to lose potential customers, but even one night with an open bar and no diners is a significant loss of income, even when taking generous tips from groups of half-sloshed friends into account). Considering the income demographics of their clients, it’s surprisingly hard to find someone to pony up the cash, but it helps that the well-established pop singer who’s footing the bill tonight is sparing no more expenses on her bachelorette party than on her wedding.
And all things considered, it’s worth it tonight. When the paparazzi aren’t around, celebrities are generally civil and well-behaved in Tatsuya’s experience—it must be less stressful when there’s less unwanted attention, and deflecting it at that level is generally unsuccessful. But there’s really not much time to speculate when he’s making three drinks at once (even if they are three of the same). Even though these women have seen this sort of trick before, they gaze at him with wonder. It’s not like he needs to feed his ego but he likes it all the same, picks up all three glasses in one hand and presents them with a flourish.
They giggle at him and he turns around, headed for the sink to clean a few shot glasses.
“Where’s the Kahlua?”
“Second from the top shelf, after all the flavored vodka.”
And Taiga certainly makes it more than worthwhile. On nights like these they cook together and work the bar together; this is most of the reason they decided to do this in the first place, after all. Too much of the time it doesn’t really feel like they’re working together, even if they’re both contributing to the same meal, like the distance between the end of the bar and the kitchen door is miles instead of barely a few feet and the walls are made of lead. They steal a few moments here or there, but it’s never even close to enough.
It doesn’t hurt that Taiga looks damn fine in this uniform (not that he looks bad in his chef’s outfit or normal clothes) especially with his sleeves rolled up like that==he’s not consciously trying to show off his forearms, toned from lifting heavy pans and dishes and pots full of water all day but it’s definitely working. And the way he barely has to reach up to grab the bottle, the way it fits so neatly into his hand, the way he turns and catches Tatsuya’s eye—yeah, definitely worth any revenue difference.
He looks good pouring and mixing drinks, too, and it’s more than a little unfair that Tatsuya’s practiced flair gets so immediately and utterly beaten out by the charming simplicity of Taiga’s fingers, the angle at which he holds the bottle against his arm, his fist clutching the glass, even the way he caps the bottle afterwards and hands the glass over, the gentle smile that reaches his eyes. Tatsuya dimly remembers he’s supposed to be getting more shrimp cocktail from the fridge and forces his eyes away. It’s tough to stop thinking about Taiga when he’s pouring out the cocktail sauce, too, remembering the pucker of Taiga’s lips as he tasted just a little bit of it and then added more lemon juice before he’d gone back to peeling the shrimp.
He places five on the ice with a little sprig of parsley and then adds the dish of sauce, sliding it across the bar to the waiting customer. She dips the first shrimp and then bites off the end, chewing thoughtfully.
“This is really good; what’s in this sauce?”
“Can’t give away our secret,” says Tatsuya with a grin. “Although I’m not the one who makes it; that one does.”
He points in Taiga’s general direction, a gesture that ordinarily wouldn’t catch his eye, but he’s already looking over at Tatsuya and flushes dark red. Tatsuya, too, feels his heart accelerate just a bit (of course Taiga’s going to look at him sometimes, but like this, catching him like this and the way he’s blushing and trying to hide his face, it’s just too damn much when they’ve got several more hours on the clock, and then a few more of cleanup before the remains of fruity drinks start sticking to the bottom of the glasses and the cocktail sauce dries on sides of the little bowls and god-knows-what gets ground into the counter and there are a lot of things he wants to do to Taiga right now that are most certainly inappropriate to do in a bar they’re supposed to be tending right now).
“Weren’t you saying there’s a wine you recommend with the shrimp?”
Tatsuya turns back to the customer. “The ’05 pinot noir. It’s got some spicy undertones that work well with the sauce.”
“Oh, I’ll definitely have a glass, then.”
He can’t resist grabbing the corkscrew from Taiga’s back pocket, and sticking it in his own once he’s done (he knows Taiga will just grab it back).
He does, when a group of latecomers arrive and they all want different things; Tatsuya’s emptying bottles and cans over various glasses, mind too focused on the rhythm and the order of which glass is which, and he turns to grab the jar of olives when Taiga’s arm is suddenly pressed against him, reaching from the far side. He’s reaching too slowly, hand lazily trailing down Tatsuya’s lower back (although a few seconds more or less between ordering the drinks and receiving them won’t make much of a difference) and Tatsuya looks up at him, eyebrow raised. Taiga just smirks back at him (Tatsuya would really, really like to kiss that expression off of his face). As a sort of (not really) payback, Tatsuya grabs the jar of olives but doesn’t open it, watches the way Taiga twists the corkscrew deep and braces it against the lip of the bottle, not closely enough to throw him off but closely enough to make him glare back once he’s finished. (Tatsuya just shrugs at him, of course.)
Chapter 4: Prequel
He’s too used to the curve of these diner mugs in his hand, the sight of dried drips of coffee on the side from the previous several (he’s lost count of how many exactly at this point) refills, the weight of lifting it to his lips (the porcelain takes up more than its fair portion, but at least these mugs are sturdy. Still, there’s no way they’re going to get this kind of mug from the dog-eared catalog that lies open between them on the table). Under the table, Taiga’s foot nudges his and Tatsuya realizes he’s been staring into space for far too long.
Tatsuya shrugs. “No more than usual. I’ll stay awake.”
The coffee is pretty weak, but it does the job anyway, or at least covers the ground that the excitement as the prospect of opening their own restaurant becomes more and more likely, more and more tangible and real, doesn’t quite get to.
Taiga smiles and takes another sip of his own coffee and makes a face. They’ve been here long enough tonight that despite their status as regular customers their welcome, worn down slightly with each free coffee refill, is basically nonexistent. Their mugs will be done to the lukewarm dregs before the lone waitress makes her way over to their table with the pot yet again.
“What about this light for the bar?” Taiga points to a picture one of those hanging stained-glass things that looks like a tent.
“Isn’t that a billiard lamp? As much as I’d like a pool table…”
Taiga sighs. “I know, I know. It doesn’t really mesh unless we have a back room or a basement or something.”
Half-distracted, he runs a hand through his hair, mussing it up so the back is sticking up weirdly.
“It’s not terribly efficient or bright, either.” Tatsuya points to the simpler one next to it. “How about that?”
“We’d have to get that sleek TV mount and those shelves with the black finish, though if we wanted something to go with that.”
“Doesn’t it come in brown?” Tatsuya frowns.
The only shelves they’ve run across in several catalogs and countless websites that come with black finish either charge exorbitant fees for the finish or are completely out of stock or just plain expensive to begin with. It’s easier to just avoid the whole thing especially when the bar itself is going to have a more natural finish (one of the first things they’d discussed, and on which they’d come to an easy agreement).
“Can we do those lights embedded in the ceiling?” says Tatsuya.
Taiga frowns, brow creasing. “It depends on what the wiring’s like. I’ve had to do some of those installations, and some of them are really rough and on one they just had us lower the ceiling and…” he trails off.
Of course they don’t have a space yet; all this planning and number-crunching and they have no idea if it will fit, no idea if they’ll be able to sneak in and get a steal on rent, no idea if they’ll be able to secure loans large enough to cover all of these costs. They’re not making much in the way of savings with Taiga’s job as an electrician and Tatsuya’s as a waiter, and even if the experience will be valuable it’s still not close to what they want to be doing full time, working for themselves and creating things from their own hands and minds. And even though it seems closer on these nights, sometimes it seems so far, almost insurmountable, with the stifling of their yawns and the gap between now and when they have to go back to their ordinary jobs is shrinking rapidly and it feels like there’s some finite amount of time before their dreams will fizzle out and die if they’re not fulfilled and that, too, is slowly ebbing away.
Taiga sighs and slumps back against the wall of the booth. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”
And saying those words, Taiga saying those words is even worse than Tatsuya thinking them, worse than having it tacitly looming over their heads. Taiga’s staring woefully into his lap and Tatsuya’s heartbeat suddenly accelerates and damn it if his arms were only long enough to reach all the way across the table. He covers Taiga’s outstretched hand with his own, and Taiga half-flinches.
“Taiga. Look at me.”
He raises his head, biting his lip. Tatsuya sighs.
“It’s been hard and I know we’re disagreeing and—” Shit. How does he say something like this? “The point is, all this, decorations and layout, not that it’s not important—we wouldn’t be anywhere without your cooking. I’m not exaggerating, seriously, I mean it. Even if we’re in the back of a shack with unreliable electricity, we’ll be fine because we’ll have that—but we’re not going to be in the back of a shack anyway, because we’re going to make this as perfect as possible, and…please, Taiga. You have no reason not to believe in yourself.”
He manages a weak smile.
Tatsuya drops his hand, gets up and walks to the other side of the booth, sitting down next to him and cupping Taiga’s face in his hands, running his thumbs over the deep, dark circles.
“I wouldn’t bet so much on anything but you; you know that?”
And Taiga’s face finally softens (not nearly enough, though), and he pulls Tatsuya into an awkward embrace where the table is digging into his side but he doesn’t really care. Taiga speaks a muffled apology into Tatsuya’s neck and Tatsuya shakes his head.
“You’ll feel better about it in the morning.”
“S’already morning,” Taiga mumbles, clutching him closer.
“After you’ve had a few hours of sleep, then.”
They settle into silence; Tatsuya shifts his position so that he’s not pressed so tightly against the table and signals the waitress for the check.
“You’re betting on yourself, too.”
“Hmm?” Tatsuya frowns.
Taiga blinks up at him almost petulantly. “You said you wouldn’t bet on anything but me. But it’s ours, so…”
“It’s ours,” Tatsuya echoes—not something that’s going to happen, something that will someday in the abstract be theirs, but is theirs now, already.
He smiles at Taiga—he can’t not like this, and then Taiga pulls him closer again, presses their bodies together almost in an effort to make them fuse together (and maybe Tatsuya wouldn’t mind that so much).
Chapter 5: Another Prequel
Taiga’s dad grabs his coat and heads for the door, smiling as he goes, and Taiga has no reason to believe that the expression isn’t genuine, that he hasn’t really enjoyed this. Almost all of his doubts had been easily turned aside with the way his dad looked at the interiors and proclaimed that this definitely was a good investment and clapped both him and Tatsuya on the shoulder and told them he was looking forward to tomorrow’s opening dinner and meant it (and even considering how rarely his dad ever expresses himself like that, the words rang true). It’s like they can both breathe a tiny bit easier now—they’ve yet to open, of course, yet to serve even their friends (let alone strangers) any sort of meal. It’s all well and good to say they’ve done a nice job with the interior (and considering the work they put into getting the place into shape, it better have turned out good) but in the scheme of things, it’s lower down on the priority list.
But it’s a tangible thing, paid for in large part by Taiga’s dad’s investment (something they’re going to have to pay back hopefully sooner rather than later, something they’re going to have to sell a hell of a lot of food and drinks for to break even on), which they’re grateful for and a little bit apprehensive about at once. It’s really difficult to ask for financial help in the first place (no one ever told him about this part of being an adult) and even though it might be easier on both of their prides to just go to a bank and get a loan that way, the sky-high interest rates had been a huge deterrent. Not that they wouldn’t have done it—but they’d be staring a large amount of immediate debt in the face, and it’s hard to be confident in that kind of situation.
He squeezes Tatsuya’s hand in what he hopes is a reassuring manner; if anything, Tatsuya’s more nervous about this (all of this) than him. Taiga can’t always get the full story out of him, but this time it suffices to know the bits and pieces he’s pulled from him and figured out and that are generally consistent with his mindset, that he’s worried about what Taiga’s father thinks of him and that it takes a whole lot to quell his own self-doubt (much more than it does to quell Taiga’s, at any rate). The smile Tatsuya gives Taiga in return is flickering, false; it might have fooled Taiga a long time ago but Tatsuya should (does) know better than that now. Taiga presses a kiss to the side of Tatsuya’s face, above his mole and to the side near his hairline. This time, Tatsuya squeezes Taiga’s hand back, and when Taiga looks at him he’s smiling a little bit more steady and bright.
And then Tatsuya slips out of his grip, ducking under Taiga’s arm and moving to the back of the bar. He pulls down a bottle of whiskey from the shelf and brandishes two glasses with his other hand, sets all three down almost silently on the bar. Taiga raises an eyebrow (not that he doesn’t like good whiskey or having a drink with Tatsuya, or that he hadn’t carefully thought about each detail of this bar and what drinking at it would be like, but it seems odd).
“Your dad said we should, ah, christen the place,” says Tatsuya as he’s getting out the ice from the freezer.
Taiga’s face immediately heats up and he sucks in his breath so hard he has to stifle a cough. “My dad said that?”
Tatsuya looks up, eyes sparkling in the midafternoon sun filtering through the window, and an almost wolfish grin spreads across his face. “No, not like that.”
“I…oh.” Taiga’s face heats up even more in embarrassment.
Tatsuya twists open the cap on the bottle. “You know, like christening a boat? Besides, I’m sure what you were thinking of is a health department violation of some sort.”
And fuck, now that he’s thinking about it, about doing presumably non-permissible things on top of that long wooden bar with Tatsuya, it’s very hard to stop his mind. He rubs his eyes, but when he looks up Tatsuya’s leaning on the bar just so, head tilted at the most perfect angle showing off his gorgeous throat and all Taiga wants to do is bite and suck and lick it until it’s all marked up, until absolutely—no. He takes a shuddery breath; Tatsuya flicks his hair in amusement. (How can he be this calm when he’s gotten Taiga this worked up with just one look? Even with his remarkable self-restraint, there’s just no way he can hide this much, and Taiga knows this from a lifetime of watching Tatsuya’s expressions, the very slight variations in the twist of his smile.)
Tatsuya pours the whiskey out between the two glasses, holding the bottle on the level of his head, but his grip is steady enough not to spill a drop. It’s amazing how he does that, even though he’ll do the same thing with a bottle of vinegar when he’s making a salad dressing and it splashes all over the counter. The smell of sweet, woody alcohol fills his nose and Tatsuya closes the bottle, wrist twisting at all the right angles; Taiga wonders if he’s already drunk on Tatsuya, even more than usual, how he’s ever going to be able to step outside the kitchen at night when Tatsuya will be tending bar like this, but then again in the scheme of possible problems that’s a pretty minor one.
He picks up the glass nearest to him and Tatsuya takes the other.
“To…” Tatsuya starts, trails off.
“T’s Kitchen,” says Taiga. “To us. To the future.”
Tatsuya laughs, clanking the lip of his glass against the side of Taiga’s. “Don’t put too many things into that.”
“Superstitious?” Taiga says.
“Can’t hurt,” says Tatsuya, and then they drink.
It goes down easier than Taiga expects—he’s never been huge on liquor, even though he’s been around Tatsuya enough since they started college to have had more than enough experience with it—smooth, slick burning like the steadiness of a gas stove on simmer. He sets down the glass and takes Tatsuya’s hand back in his, tracing his thumb over the flat of Tatsuya’s wrist. Tatsuya closes the gap between them, meeting Taiga’s mouth with his own, burning numb, sucking on Taiga’s lower lip. How can it be asking for too much when he’s asking for the things that will make Tatsuya just a little bit happier? Even if it’s for him, too, even if it’s his dream as well as Tatsuya’s (and they’ve worked hard enough that they ought to be able to call in a favor; it’s not like they’re relying on luck alone to drag them through), this will never be too much.
“Let’s go home,” Tatsuya murmurs. “Soon enough we’ll be here too much.”
He’s probably right, and they have nothing else to do here today; the opening is tomorrow, and it’s probably best to just enjoy each other and get some sleep.
Chapter 6: Christmas
“How long on the hams?”
Tatsuya squints at the timer. “Eight minutes. A little less.”
“Good,” says Taiga, not looking away from the stove. It almost looks like he’s juggling the handles on the frying pans, moving them all from burner to burner like this, except Taiga’s shit at juggling (Tatsuya’s tried to teach him multiple times and he just can’t quite get the hang of it even though he can do this frying pan thing and dribble a basketball at lightning speed).
Tatsuya grabs a couple of clean bowls and towels them off before slipping into an open space in front of the stove and ladling out some miso soup.
“Roast duck for four.”
Taiga nods, still focused on the frying vegetables. Time, scarce as it always is, is even more compressed on Christmas Eve, but still, he wants to let the vegetables smoke and curl and char and kiss the sweat from Taiga’s face and the furrows from his brow. But there’s not enough time, so he just brushes his hip against Taiga, slight enough not to knock him aside but strong enough for him to feel it, before whisking himself out and bringing the soup to another table. Every Christmas Eve they open late and close early and serve roast hams and ducks and turkeys in early five-course meals, and it’s always rushed and frantic because Taiga refuses to make the waiters come in and do holiday hours so it’s just the two of them and that’s fine on slow days (and even not-qute-so-slow days) but not on days like today (well, at least the bar’s not open).
At least this family with the duck is the last one they’re taking, and a few of the larger tables are on or after dessert already but he doesn’t even have time to count down the hours and checks and courses because there’s more food ready in the kitchen and drinks need to be refilled and he needs to keep track of it all and damn it (maybe he shouldn’t think words like that this close to Christmas; two years of Catholic school taught him at least that much).
They finally close at quarter after four; the kitchen’s long since closed but the tables need wiping down and the dishes need cleaning and the floor needs to be mopped and they have to put all the drinks away but they can take it a little bit easier, step off the gas just a bit, brush closer to each other. They can pass each other by on the way to and from the kitchen and stop for a kiss underneath invisible mistletoe, bask in the glow of the lights Taiga hung from the ceiling that morning. Tatsuya can think about that, Taiga on the ladder stringing the wires around with the electrician’s skills he clearly hasn’t forgotten looking like he was on top of the world and now they’re both so drained (Tatsuya’s staring into space and doesn’t quite register how hot the water is pouring on his hands for maybe thirty seconds and it’s a good thing he isn’t burned).
And even so they’re out way earlier than usual; Taiga mutters something into Tatsuya’s hair about taking the Christmas lights down today for once but as usual doesn’t go near the ladder—or rather, Tatsuya prevents him, taking him by the hand and tugging him toward the door. It’s already dark out but the streets are still lively and it feels so nice, Taiga pulling him closer and complaining about how tired he is.
They sleep straight through morning and into the afternoon, and even when they wake they don’t really move too much for a little while, just mumbling half-sentences against each other’s skin and the warm blankets. But soon enough Taiga gets antsy and his mouth starts to roam all over Tatsuya’s skin. He presses his lips to Tatsuya’s neck, shoulder, upper back, licks and sucks and bites until Tatsuya thinks his skin must be raw (and still, he doesn’t want it to stop, wants more and more of Taiga’s attention, wants those arms to encircle his waist tighter and tighter).
He orders up from the place down the street, deluxe fried chicken and steamed vegetables and extra rice and French fries for Taiga (and extra pickles for himself), because it’s nice to not have to make your own food a few times a year. They don’t bother to use plates, eating on the couch with everything spread out between them on the coffee table and the television on some strange sports talk show.
Tatsuya feels half-drunk even though he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol, and he kisses the circles under Taiga’s eyes and then underneath his chin. It’s sudden enough to make Taiga flush in the low dusky light.
“We still have to take the lights down tomorrow,” he murmurs into Tatsuya’s hair.
“We always manage,” says Tatsuya, stifling a yawn. “Plus we’ll be better-rested.”
“I know,” says Taiga.
Tomorrow they’ll figure it out, stow the lights away in the closet again and go back to their regular menu and hours. They’ll open up the bar and they might sell a little bit more eggnog and champagne than usual (and duck sandwiches will be on special from the kitchen because they always buy too many ducks except for that one year when they didn’t have close to enough and it’s better to be safe than sorry and the sandwiches do really well) and they’ll get more big tippers from out of town than usual for the next week or so and then they’ll dissipate like the holiday season, like glitter ground into the floor until it loses its luster.
But tomorrow they’ll go back to living their dream, and no matter how hard they work themselves or how frantic they get it’s always, always worth it. They’re doing this; they’re making food and drinks for people and making a living and they’re doing it together.
An Evening to Remember at T’s Kitchen
Brennan Cruz, Casual Nightlife LA
This city has long since hit the backlash to fusion bar food, but new downtown hotspot T’s Kitchen just might be starting the wave of backlash to that backlash, innovative and clever and somehow fresh. It doesn’t hurt that the food itself is delicious, and that’s perhaps what makes it stand out even more from the pack. Head chef Taiga Kagami’s creations include fried dumplings with a mustard dipping sauce, gumbo-marinated hot wings that come in one of three rotating flavors (or a sampler of all three—currently a tangy Carolina barbeque, sweet curry, and a strong hatch pepper that delivers a kick without overwhelming, all of which are superb and sure to be switched out by publication time), and fries with a crisp shell and soft, flavorful inside.
I very nearly filled up on appetizers; it was almost too easy to get lost in the atmosphere, like that of an upscale sports bar. It’s another overplayed concept, but one so few bars have gotten right. T’s Kitchen absolutely has, though; the chatter is relatively low and the TV showing the Lakers game at my end of the bar is audible.
The drinks are superb; they offer small-sized versions of their signature cocktails, prepared with no less flair by a bartender who pours liquor into glasses from sky-high, never spilling a drop. The Late Morning (melon liqueur, blue curacao, vodka, and pure cranberry juice) is a real treat, rich and sweet and nuanced, though I’m glad I only got the small size. And their Manhattan, served with just as much aplomb, is maybe the best you’ll find on this coast. I compliment the bartender on that and he laughs; as it turns out he’s one of the proprietors, Tatsuya Himuro, and he’s tended this bar every night since the place opened.
Himuro and Kagami met as children on a city basketball court; it’s a story Himuro’s clearly told before but not one he’s sick of telling. And it seems to lead here perfectly, as if one day they were playing HORSE and skinning their knees trying to make trick shots, and then the next they were opening up a restaurant together.
“We took a few detours,” Himuro demurs.
Those detours apparently include Himuro’s stint as a waiter and Kagami’s as an electrician, trying to pay the bills and come up with capital—stints that have served them well here (Himuro speaks with nearly as much pride in his voice about Kagami rewiring the restaurant as he does about Kagami’s cooking, and the impeccable quality of Himuro’s service is self-evident; even while talking with me he excuses himself to take care of patrons as soon as they look ready to order).
I ask Himuro for a main course recommendation; their menu is just as stacked in the entrée section as it is in with appetizers, and I’ve seen other people ordering everything from the seared fish to the gyudon to some sort of sandwich at the bar, and they all look good. Himuro advises me to go for the cheeseburger, medium-well if I’m not averse. Every place does hamburgers; few are exceptional, but at this point I should probably stop limiting my expectations for this restaurant. And sure enough, the burger arrives promptly, sizzling on a grilled bun with lettuce, cheddar, pickles, and a thick slice of tomato; the buns are spread with a thin layer of a house special sauce vaguely the color of habanero hot sauce.
The burger itself is juicy, a thin quarter of a pound of ground sirloin cooked evenly, crisp on the outside but still juicy and perfectly complemented by the additions. The sauce has a bit of a kick; there’s definitely some kind of pepper and maybe horseradish, but it’s not nearly strong enough to overwhelm the other flavors. And the simplicity of it all is far from underwhelming; like everything else here it’s hit just the right balance.
The amount of bar patrons picks up as the night wears on, but there’s no one pointedly redirecting me to a table or hinting about a check; Himuro leaves me with the dessert menu and doesn’t need to tell me there’s no pressure because I don’t feel any. None of the other patrons do, either; the couple next to me has been here since before I have and it’s been an hour or since they’ve ordered their last drinks and they’re still engrossed in the basketball postgame. Finally, though, when half an hour remains until the kitchen closes, Himuro reminds me about dessert, and I order the molten chocolate cake.
The place is beginning to clear out by now; the last few table patrons are settling their bills and as people at the bar (including the couple next to me) leave they aren’t so quickly replaced. Dessert comes, and it is rich—the cake is small but I’m not sure I can finish it all at once. Himuro laughs and says I’ve got until the end of the night if I’m up to it. And it does pair well with the dregs of my Manhattan and the strong, fresh coffee straight from the back of the bar.
I’m not prepared for when the head chef himself comes out to help tend bar, though. He’s shod his chef’s apron but his sleeves are still rolled up, and he runs a hand through his hair before asking what he can do to help. Himuro asks me if I’d like another Manhattan, and why not?
Kagami has none of Himuro’s bartending finesse but he’s clearly well-practiced; his Manhattan is not quite as smooth as Himuro’s, made with a different style of whiskey and a little heavier on the vermouth but still quite good, especially with the chocolate cake. I compliment Kagami on its richness, and he shrugs and says that’s just the kind of chocolate he uses. Himuro chides him for not just accepting the praise, and this little glimpse into their rapport reassures me that this restaurant is built on a solid partnership.
Kagami is evasive on most questions, but still quite charming, Himuro’s complement in many ways, but equally eager to tout his partner’s skills. When I ask him why he chose to name the restaurant after himself, he shrugs and says that it’s Himuro’s as well, and then launches into a description of all the recipes that were Himuro’s idea (apparently the sweet curry wings were his creation, as well as their steak dry rub and some of the sandwiches) but before he can finish Himuro cuts him off from where he’s fixing drinks at the other end of the bar.
“Taiga—” he says, and Kagami’s already passing him a glass.
It’s easy to imagine them passing a basketball between them until one of them drives to the hoop just as smoothly. I say as much, and Kagami shrugs.
“Well, there’s no one I’d rather do either with than Tatsuya.”
Tatsuya’s voice breaks off; he spins toward Taiga. “Did you really say that?”
Taiga kind of can’t believe they actually printed it (and he probably won’t even after he rereads the article for himself) but the look on Tatsuya’s face, the truly surprised smile that spreads wide across his cheeks as if he’s trying to suppress it but can’t for once, speaks for itself.
“You know I mean it, right?”
“Of course,” Tatsuya says, almost immediately.
Taiga gets up from the couch; they step closer to each other in almost complete synchronicity. When they’re pressed against each other, chest-to-chest and face-to-neck, the folded page of the nightlife magazine digging into Taiga’s back from where Tatsuya holds it against him, there is so much they could say. There are so many affirmations and words they’ve already spoken that wouldn’t, couldn’t, convey the meaning they want (because nothing does). This comes close though.
....and this is why i couldn't hack it as a journalist lmao
happy kagahimu day. last chapter for now but who knows
Chapter 8: Summer Menu
i really wanted to eat softshells, and this is the closest i could get
They always hold off on the summer menu until the softshells are in season, after the other restaurants lining the street across and alongside them already have it, when they’re offering summer beers off-menu and on special and they’ve already had people show up and ask when they’ll change it over. The answer is always that they’ll see, they don’t know yet, soon.
Today, though, Tatsuya stops by the fish market and comes back with a styrofoam cooler full of them, snapping at the air and crawling over each other, triumph in the strain of his arms and the small smile on his face. The rest of the staff haven’t arrived yet, so it’s just the two of them and their crabs and a second cooler full of oysters. It’s like the ocean in the harshly-lit kitchen, the smell of salt and the idea of tasting just one of the oysters with a little cocktail sauce--shit, do they have enough horseradish?
“Do you know where I put the plastic pitchers?” says Tatsuya. “I want to do frozen mules.”
“No clue,” says Taiga. “Let’s get these into the walk-in.”
He picks up both of the coolers himself, to Tatsuya’s tacit protest of a frown (Tatsuya had already carried them to the car, and then from the car into the back of the kitchen, so it’s only fair) and into the fridge. Tatsuya follows before the door swings back, pretending to look for the pitchers on one of the shelves but really there to bump Taiga’s arm and pull him into a kiss, press against him for body heat. This is probably unsanitary, Taiga thinks, the same way he does every time they do this (including when he initiates).
“I’ll check the basement,” Tatsuya says when they break apart, his face a little bit flushed (Taiga doesn’t have a mirror handy but he’s pretty sure his is too).
Oysters and soft shells are on special tonight; they’ll do that a few more days and rotate how they serve the soft shells before they decide what they can fit on the summer menu. Maybe a softshell sandwich for lunch and deep-fried softshells with greens for dinner, frozen mules and frozen margaritas, oysters as an all-day app (but they’ll have to figure out the supply for that one) and some kind of surf and turf, a summer fruit salad? Taiga’s mind is spinning with ideas, meals he’s wanted to test out and now has a limited window to try, summer standbys that he’s been waiting to eat just as much as the customers, Tatsuya’s favorite summer cocktails where the booze is drowned out by citrus and sugar and ice, stuff with enough alcohol to sit in the freezer and never go solid. It’s not the searing dry-heat of the dead of summer yet, but they’re getting closer to it, flip flops sticking to the sidewalk and the moments between stepping out of the restaurant late at night and turning on the air conditioner in the car a rude awakening.
When the season happens, Taiga can barely remember missing it and wonders why he ever had, if he ever had--but it’s also the season where they close the restaurant one day a week and go to the beach and he surfs and sometimes convinces Tatsuya to come with him, and Tatsuya grills steaks and shrimp and corn on the cob and salmon and Taiga always says they need to use his salmon cakes recipe in the restaurant but they never do, because Tatsuya loves the validation but he also loves having something that’s just for them and not for the customers (and Taiga loves that too, like the cocktails he makes Tatsuya with sake and cherry cola and aromatic bitters. (Tatsuya is more a chef than Taiga will ever be a bartender, despite all the nights Taiga’s racked up behind the bar.)
They don’t have the same kind of winter out here as they do up north, or in Akita, or even in Tokyo, no snow and a sun that’s still out most of the day. It’s more like a lack of summer than anything else, what it’s not instead of what it is, enough to make Taiga miss the summer even at its worst and least apologetic, for all that comes with it. It might be a stupid demarcation but it’s there, divided like sand on one side and the other of the high-tide line.
They take lunch together in the back alley, the door cracked open in case someone needs them, the first crab sandwiches hot off the fryer and iced tea in extra-large thermoses.
“Too much horseradish,” says Taiga. “It’s overwhelming.”
His nose is starting to run from the sharpness he’d inhaled with his bite, but Tatsuya seems unfazed, chewing thoughtfully.
“It’s not bad. I can still taste the crab in there. Maybe if you ease off the tomato, though?”
Taiga bites his lip.
“Offer a couple of options. Sandwich regular, or sandwich with light tomato and extra-hot cocktail sauce, see if anyone goes for it. Have a sauce tasting event.”
It’s hard to tell if Tatsuya’s pulling his leg or not. Taiga looks up and then squints as the sun starts to shine out from under a cloud. His nose is definitely cleared up now, all the better to smell the weed and car exhaust with. At least the restaurant smells good inside.
“Maybe a sharp sauce will make them order a cool dessert. Are we doing the peach cobbler this year?”
Shit, just thinking about it makes Taiga’s mouth water. But he’d written a bunch of ideas down in the back of his recipe book, like the pound cake he’d made with frozen peaches for Tatsuya’s birthday, maybe covered in lightly-whipped cream.
“Maybe?” says Taiga.
“We should make it anyway” says Tatsuya.
It’s too hot to sit this close together on the stoop, but they’ll be back inside in a few minutes where it’s marginally cooler. Or they can go back into the walk-in for a second or two, find some excuse or other (maybe Tatsuya hasn’t found the plastic pitchers yet).