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Steam

 

He never waited for the curry to cool before digging in. He ate like he was trying to warm his bones- the steam from the dish rising to fog his glasses. Within minutes, his cheeks would flush, his nose would turn red and En could usually hear him sniffling over his bowl all the way from the kitchen. Sometimes, if they were slow, En would stop and watch him through the serving window, gulping down mouthfuls of their spiciest dishes without much effort. It seemed to En that despite the fact that his body seemed to react to the spices, he almost enjoyed the sensations, huddling over his food like he hadn’t eaten in years. Their curry wasn’t that good. They hadn’t won any awards nor did they get particularly very much foot traffic even when the University was in session, but it didn’t seem to make any difference to him. That skinny, bespectacled boy always left with rosy cheeks, a runny nose and a smile that warmed En to his toes. And of course, there was always a little bit of steam left smudging his lenses.

En wondered if he even noticed.

He started coming in shortly after classes had started for the term; it didn’t take long for En to figure out that he was a first-year student at Binan U. It didn’t surprise him, as often as he came in to eat with his bag overloaded with books and his shoulders slumped. He also just looked smart, and it wasn’t just the glasses. En knew he wasn’t stupid- his chronic laziness and aversion to tests had been the reason he hadn’t gotten into Binan, himself- but the boy with the glasses probably could talk circles around him and he wouldn’t be able to retort. For the first few weeks, En would go back and forth with Kouji, the busboy, about what their regular could possibly be studying that required so many books. Kouji thought it was physics. En guessed biology. He would have asked sooner- but being stuck in the kitchen wasn’t exactly the best place to get to know the customers. It took until he’d been consistently fogging up his glasses over their curry, three times a week, for three months, until En got the chance to find out his name.

Kouji, incidentally, had the flu. So En had to pull double duty, busing the far tables when traffic was low and making sure the curry got out to the right people. Owner had even had to come down and help, and they’d been so busy that En almost missed that he was there at all. He must’ve snuck in later than usual, or been so consumed in his books that he hadn’t eaten as ravenously as usual, because by the time En got around to cleaning the tables an hour before close, he was still only halfway through his dish, absently taking spoonfuls while his tired eyes scanned the pages behind his specs. He seemed peaceful, if exhausted, and En almost didn’t want to interrupt. He might have been reading something important- the cover of the book was hidden from view, so En couldn’t see the subject. He cleaned the table next to the boy with the glasses for a solid five minutes before he effectively decided ‘to hell with it’. He just had to know what he was all about.

“Everything okay over here?” En asked, looking up from his hundredth circle of the rag on the table.

The boy blinked, seemingly startled. His cheeks were red, En noted. “Oh, yes,” he said after a moment, looking up from his book. “Everything’s very good, as usual.”

“Good to hear,” En said, quirking his lips into a grin. Compliments were nice, but he seemed easy to please. He left the rag on the table and leaned his elbow on the back of the booth seat. “You come here a lot don’t you?”

“Oh, yes. This is on the way home from the University, so I always like to drop by after class,” the boy with the glasses said brightly. “Also, it’s the only place nearby that has good curry.”

En resisted the urge to scoff- after all, their curry was mediocre, at best. He sounds too genuine to be sucking up. But still, a compliment was a compliment. He grinned. “I appreciate that.”

“You’re the chef, right?”

“Mmhm. En Yufuin.”

“Atsushi Kinugawa.” En thought he hadn’t heard a nicer name. Nor had he heard one that accompanied such a nice smile, with such warm, brown eyes peeking out from behind misted lenses. “It’s nice to meet you, Yufuin-san.”

 

X

 

Not long after officially meeting, En noticed that Kinugawa’s visits to their humble restaurant increased from three times a week to four. He figured he noticed the increased frequency so quickly because he'd also noticed that Kinugawa’s regular table moved from the back of the extended seating area up towards the kitchen, either at one of the closest two-person booths or at the counter on Mondays. En supposed the counter spot on Mondays was his fault- Kinugawa would arrive early on those days, before the lunch rush, when they rarely had more than three of four patrons in the restaurant at one time. Kinugawa would come in, his bag loaded with books and his notebook in hand, and pour over his schoolwork with about as much enthusiasm as with which he ate his curry. En had wondered how he could even see his writing, what with how dark the booth he usually chose was and the steam from the curry smudging his glasses. He’d wondered so much that after the second Monday, he’d said as much out loud;

“Hey, Kinugawa-san?”

“Eh? Yes?”

“Come sit over here, will you? The light’s better closer to the kitchen- you’re gonna ruin your eyes squinting in the dark over there.”

Kinugawa had just smiled at him- another one of those smiles that En found himself craving more and more- and moved seats immediately. Soon after, Mondays became less about Kinugawa doing schoolwork (although En did leave him alone if it was absolutely necessary) and more about swapping curry cooking techniques. Kinugawa, as it turned out, knew his way around a kitchen. Or rather, his tastebuds did.

“You used more nutmeg, today, Yufuin-san.”

“Did I?”

“Mmhm. It’s sweeter than last time, but it’s actually… better this way.”

“Huh.”

“I usually use more turmeric… but I might have to try it this way at home.”

En had arched his eyebrow at that, leaning over the counter separating the kitchen from the seating area and wiping sweat from his forehead. “You cook?”

Kinugawa actually blushed, turning back to look at his bowl instead of at En, vaguely stirring the remnants of his dish. “Oh, a little bit… I’m nowhere near as good as you, Yufuin-san.”

“You know I’m not that good, right?” En drawled, unable to help himself. Kinugawa looked up at that, almost so affronted that he forgot his prior shyness. It was almost cute.

“You sell yourself short. Your curry is one of the best I’ve had.”

“One of the best, hm? Then you must not have been to India, before. True Indian curry would put my slop to shame.” The drivel was his usual- he joked around with Kouji enough that the only reason people kept coming back for his curry was the ‘addictive powder’ he put into the mix, or his charm or good looks (or Kouji’s charm and good looks). But leave it to Kinugawa to leave him with nothing to say.

“...I lived in India for a year, actually.”

All he could do was stare at the steam rising from his latest, nutmeg-laden batch.

 

X

 

Somehow, Kinugawa’s admission lit two simultaneous fires under En’s rear end. One, he had to learn how to make and perfect authentic Indian curry, exact spices and all, and two, he needed to taste Kinugawa’s curry .

The second thought had come as something of a sudden epiphany, but after several Mondays (and some other days) worth of chatting with Kinugawa about curry, India and a variety of other topics, he came to a couple of conclusions. One, Kinugawa likely knew more about curry than he liked to admit, and thusly based on his knowledge alone could probably whip up a decent batch even if his technical skill wasn’t the greatest (if that was even what he was insecure about, at all). Two, Kinugawa just as a general person was one of the easiest people to get along with. He smiled a lot. He was agreeable. He liked to ask questions and had thoughtful insights about the most mundane of things. The two of them once spent a slow, rainy late spring afternoon debating about the purpose of chikuwabu- a conversation that En had attempted to have with Kouji to only be brushed off as halfway insane. Kinugawa never once insinuated En was insane. Perhaps a little eccentric- like he’d been told before- but not insane or boring. And certainly it was a bonus that each time Kinugawa came in (the frequency increasing to between four and five times a week by the middle of the University term) he would leave his bowl completely empty and his glasses absolutely smudged with fog. Sometimes he ate two portions, which En was actually rather relieved about, considering Kinugawa was just so damn skinny.

It had been those conclusions that had driven home that En had potentially found someone who was an even bigger curry nut than he was, which in and of itself was something of a feat. But not only that, Kinugawa was simply a kindred spirit. He made En’s days brighter, especially on the busy days when he’d come in after his longer class days, his shoulders sagging from the weight of his bag and a look on his face that said that his stomach was growling so loud they could hear it in Timbuktu. En was always more than happy to serve Kinugawa up a warm bowl, if only to put a smile on his face. That in turn made En smile.

But bringing up that he wanted to try Kinugawa’s cooking was another story. He’d never seen Kinugawa outside of the restaurant. He didn’t even know where he lived. He’d found out from strategic peeking at his meticulous notes that he was studying some sort of science, although the courses seemed to vary from biology to chemistry to anatomy. Perhaps he was studying to be a doctor. A doctor who liked to make curry. It certainly wouldn’t be too terribly out there, and from their brief encounters, En thought that Kinugawa would eventually make a fine doctor. He had a great manner about him, if he could learn to be more confident. Or perhaps, more sincerely cheerful.

Because Kinugawa was absolutely terrible at faking cheer when he wasn’t feeling it.

The University’s summer holiday had just begun, and En hadn’t seen Kinugawa for several days. En was beginning to think that Kinugawa had gone home for the break, which reminded him that he hadn’t even asked Kinugawa where home was, when speak of the devil , according to Kouji, he showed up an hour before close, looking quite droopy and clutching his smartphone like it was some kind of lifeline. He didn’t even grab a menu card (although he never needed it, En had noticed Kinugawa would always take one anyway, for reference), he just slumped into a booth, dumping his heavy bag onto the floor and effectively letting out a full-body sigh .

It was disconcerting, to say the least.

“You better take this, Yufuin,” Kouji said, clapping his hand on En’s shoulder. “I’ll clean up the other tables. Go bring him his usual and sit.”

Kinugawa hadn’t moved when En emerged from the kitchen several minutes later, carrying the tray of two servings of lamb curry and two glasses of mango tea to the corner booth. En smiled as he approached, although it took a gentle nudge of his foot against Kinugawa’s to get him to look up from his phone.

“Mind if I join you?” En asked, smiling.

“Huh? Oh, of course Yufuin-san,” Kinugawa said, attempting to smile brightly, but it was obvious that the smile didn’t meet his eyes. There were dark circles underneath his glasses and his skin seemed sallow and lacked its usual glow.

En raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything just yet, not wanting to draw attention to Kinugawa’s mood until he’d at least gotten some curry in him. He set the tray down and reached out to hand Kinugawa a spoon. “Eat,” he said. “You look hungry.”

“Thank you…” Kinugawa said, and his smile was a little more genuine, though he still seemed troubled. Though it was replaced by puzzlement soon after, as if his brain took a moment to catch up to speed. “Though… I don’t recall putting in what I wanted… how did you know?”

En chuckled and shrugged, trying to ignore how his stomach did an odd flop at Kinugawa’s intonation. “Lucky guess. Or skill. You decide.”

Kinugawa smiled a bit wider. “Itadakimasu.”

They both picked up their spoons and started to eat, En attempting to not be too terribly obvious that he was watching Kinugawa as usual. Like always, Kinugawa didn’t wait for the curry to cool before digging in, the warm steam rising from the bowl meeting his glasses full force and obscuring his eyes for a few moments as he ate. He was just about as ravenous as always, but he kept glancing towards his phone on the table and frowning ever-so-slightly. The screen lit up once and Kinugawa for a split second looked excited, but the text on the screen evidently wasn’t what he was looking for and his expression returned to the half-pleasant-yet-still-slightly-depressed look.

“Is something bothering you, Kinugawa-san?” En asked after a moment.

“Hm?” Kinugawa said, glancing up from his bowl, the fog disappearing from his lenses.  “Oh… no… I’m fine.” He smiled, but it was most definitely false.

“You don’t seem fine,” En said.

“Don’t I?” Kinugawa tilted his head.

En nodded towards Kinugawa’s smartphone. “Are you waiting for a call?”

If he was reading it right, En thought Kinugawa looked a bit sheepish. He looked back down at the offending device, stirring his curry absently. “Something like that.”

“Oh?”

It took a moment for Kinugawa to speak again, his voice soft and a bit sad-sounding. “...my friend from high school was supposed to contact me about coming to visit over break, but I haven’t heard anything from him in a few weeks.”

En blinked. “Is he busy with exams?”

“I’m… not sure,” Kinugawa said slowly. “We… had an argument over the phone the last time we talked. It was stupid… I shouldn’t have hung up when I did. I guess he’s angry with me.”

“What was the argument about?” En asked.

Kinugawa actually smiled a bit, letting out a half-laugh. “Curry, believe it or not.”

En raised his eyebrows, chuckling as well. “Oh really?”

“Mmhm. He’s… not a fan, although I’m not sure he’s ever tried it. I wanted him to come here to try yours since it’s so good but he refused.” En wasn’t quite sure how to take that, although he felt his heart speed up a little bit. Carefully, he stuck to neutral advice.

“You can’t really force someone to like something.”

“I know, but I think he would like it if he gave it a chance,” Kinugawa said.  “He’s… he can be set in his ways, though. It’s my fault the argument ended how it did… I got upset with him…” He ran his hands through his hair, as he often did when he was studying. Must’ve been a nervous habit.

“I’ll feel guilty if my curry caused a fallout between the two of you,” En said, vaguely wondering if he was reading the situation right. Kinugawa seemed pretty torn up about the whole thing, even if it just seemed to be a silly argument between friends. Still, what he said was true. Even though it was… touching that Kinugawa liked his curry enough that he wanted to share it with friends from home, he didn’t want to be responsible for the end of a friendship, no matter how indirectly.

“Well it’s not quite about your curry…” Kinugawa said, frowning.  “I offered to make some for him, myself, instead… but that almost made it worse.”

En blinked. “Really? How so? I’d think offering to cook for your friend would be better than taking them out, especially to this dump.” He grinned slightly, waggling his eyebrows when Kinugawa looked up. It earned En a smile and one of Kinugawa’s soft laughs, which lightened the atmosphere slightly.

“You’re too much sometimes, Yufuin-san.” Kinugawa shook his head. “You really ought to have more confidence.”

“So what did your friend say to your offer?”

“...Kinchan said that even if I made the best curry in the world he still wouldn’t eat such a ‘foul thing’,” Kinugawa said, lowering his voice in what En assumed was an approximation of his evidently ‘fussy’ friend adorably named ‘Kinchan’. “I guess I took it too personally and hung up on him.”

En didn’t quite blame him; curry was serious business. “Did you call back to apologize?”

Kinugawa nodded. “I emailed him the next day but I don’t know if he got it or if he’s ignoring me.”

“Curry shouldn’t be so dramatic,” En said, leaning back in his chair a bit. “It’s supposed to warm people up from the inside.”

“That’s what I said!” Kinugawa said emphatically. Once again, En thought he would never meet another person as long as he lived who liked curry as much as he did. He’d been told he was strange for his tastes and most of the time he believed people, but in Kinugawa, it was endearing.

“Are you two good friends?”

“We’ve been best friends since elementary.”

For some reason, the longevity of the friendship made En feel better. He assumed it was because that meant that Kinugawa wouldn’t have to worry more than necessary. Which was actually rather important to En. “Then I’m sure your Kinchan will come around eventually.”

“I hope so…” Kinugawa said, chuckling slightly in what En could only assume was for his use of Kinugawa’s nickname for his childhood friend. “I would go back to see him, myself, but I won’t have enough money leftover after paying for my apartment to afford a train ticket to his University.”

En frowned. “I’d imagine money would be tight with going to school and living on your own.” En could barely make ends meet, himself, and he lived above the restaurant in the apartment across from the Owner. Of course, he was a bit irresponsible with his money, spending most of it on recipe books. “Do you have a job, Kinugawa-san?” he asked.

“I work part-time for a convenience store on the weekends but it doesn’t pay much,” Kinugawa said. It suddenly made sense why Kinugawa only rarely stopped by the restaurant on weekends. The wheels in En’s head started to turn.

“...I have an idea on how you could make enough money.”

“Hm?”

“We’ve been starting to get a bit busier,” En said, slightly conspiratorial. “Owner is looking for another chef to help me out when there’s a lot of people here. You said you can make curry and you seem to know the process well enough-”

Kinugawa raised his hands and shook his head. “Oh no, I couldn’t-” he said, then promptly cut himself off, seemingly flustered. His nervous face is kind of adorable .  “I’m nowhere near where you are.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” En said with a smirk. “How about this? This weekend, you make me your best curry- what you were going to make for your friend. If I think it’s good, you can work with me here as a paid apprentice… until Owner thinks you’re ready to be on your own.”

Kinugawa blinked, looking concerned. “Are you thinking of leaving, Yufuin-san?”

En was taken aback at first, but he smiled slightly. “No, not entirely,” he said. “I was thinking of cutting back my hours next year, though, if I could pass the entrance exam to Binan. I like being a chef well enough but I suppose I should go to school for something useful.” The thought had been at the back of his mind since before he’d met Kinugawa, but what he would likely never know was that Kinugawa had actually put a fire under En’s chronic laziness (as called out by Kouji) and tendency to fall into comfortable habits to make him actually want to go back to school. Maybe he’d tell him someday. Still, he expected an academic like Kinugawa to be happy about schooling. They still didn’t know each other too well, but En thought he’d had Kinugawa figured out. But apparently...

“Being a chef is useful, though,” Kinugawa said so earnestly En felt something inside his chest tighten. “You give people good food and make people happy.”

“...I’m glad you think that, Kinugawa-san,” En said after a moment. “But a chef isn’t as important as what it is that you’re going after. Medicine, right?”

Kinugawa looked startled. “How did you know?”

“I peeked at your notes once or twice.” En smirked. After a beat, Kinugawa laughed . Actually laughed. And for a good while, too. En had to grin.

“Yufuin-san,” he said after a moment or two, still chuckling. “You’re rather sly.”

“What do you say, though?” En said, leaning over the table slightly. “Even if you don’t accept the job… I still want to try some of your curry.”

Kinugawa seemed to mull it over for several agonizing seconds, glancing back and forth between his bowl, En himself, the kitchen and his phone. En hardly realized he was holding his breath.

Finally, quietly, Kinugawa responded, dipping his head and letting the steam from the remainder of his dish fog his lenses. “...maybe I could make you some.”

En spent a lot of time hovering over hot curry. But never had he felt as much heat as he did when the boy with the glasses smiled and promised him his very own curry.