"Our new neighbors are moving in," Arima observed.
Kinshiro, who had up until then been contentedly updating the inventory on his computer, looked up with mild irritation.
"What has that got to do with us?" he asked.
Arima only shrugged and smiled. "Just thought I would mention it."
Kinshiro only huffed and went back to what he was doing, which was far more productive than worrying about what his neighbors were doing. He had known since the day he'd set up shop here that he was going to have to put up with neighbors eventually, so having them move in now was hardly a surprise. This particular area had been conceived as a high-class pedestrian mall, where well-heeled customers could eat good food, drink expensive cocktails, and buy antiques and handcrafted kitchenware. Kinshiro had been one of the first on board with the project, and had opened the doors of Kusatsu's Rare Books practically before anyone else had even started moving in. It was a tradition in Kinshiro's family that when one of their members graduated college, he or she should be given a little money to buy or start a business, which they would run for a year or so to start learning managerial technique. If they succeeded, they would be allowed to take on a role in the main family corporation if they desired, perhaps keeping on the smaller business as a sideline. If they made blunders, it would only matter on a small scale and could be used as a learning experience. He had been greatly looking forward to his time of entrepreneurial freedom, and he wasn't about to let any new neighbors detract from his enjoyment.
As it happened, it turned out that Kinshiro liked running his bookstore. He liked the challenge of going to auctions and estate sales to ferret out rare books for his collection. He liked seeing the books lined up on their shelves in neat rows, organized by author and subject. He liked the people who came to his store, who tended to be intelligent and interesting to talk to. He liked the quiet moments when there was no one there but himself and Arima, and he could admire his treasures to his heart's content. He even loved the smell, a mixture of leather, old paper, and a hint the lemon polish they used to dust the shelves. He thought that as long as the business stayed profitable, he might just keep it even after he'd taken whatever position in the company his father had in mind for him.
His ruminations were interrupted by a rumble and bang. Kinshiro jumped, afraid for an instant that one of the upstairs shelves must have collapsed.
"What was that?" he exclaimed.
"What I said," Arima replied, imperturbable as ever. "The neighbors. They're moving in." He moved into the back room to peer out one of the small windows. "They seem to be unloading the furniture now."
"Well, they don't have to be so loud about it," Kinshiro grumbled.
Annoyed now, he closed down his program and went stomping out the back door to have a look at his new neighbors. Sure enough, a moving van was pulled up to the delivery entrance, and a tall blond man was standing by the open back gate contemplating its contents. He was dressed in ragged sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt that had been washed so many times that the graphic on the front was only an indistinguishable blur. Kinshiro frowned at him.
"Are you the new owner here?" he demanded.
The blond man turned and regarded him with a sleepy gaze.
"Nah," he said. "I'm just here to help unpack."
He ran a hand through his already untidy locks in a gesture that was clearly meant to convey deep weariness. The effect was undermined by the fact that the moving van was still full of boxes, all of them plainly undisturbed.
"I see," said Kinshiro. "So who is in charge here?"
"Atsushi," the stranger replied. "But he's not here. He went back home to get some more stuff."
"Well, when he gets here," said Kinshiro tartly, "tell him to move his new things quietly."
With that, he turned and marched back into the bookstore. He found Arima patiently sorting and shelving the new inventory.
"Did you meet the new neighbors?" he asked pleasantly.
"One of them," said Kinshiro.
"Was it the one with the glasses?" Arima asked. "He seemed quite pleasant. Just your type, in fact."
"No, another one," Kinshiro replied. "I was not favorably impressed."
"Well, I'm sure you'll meet the other one later," said Arima, turning back to his display.
"I'm sure," said Kinshiro dryly. "But I don't think I'm going to like them."
As usual, Kinshiro arrived at work through the back door. It would have been just as easy for him to go around to the front, but it pleased him more to enter through a door that was off-limits to the common customers. He might cater to a better class of consumer, but the fact remained that he was the owner and would always be a cut or two above them. He slipped silently through the door into the storage room, paused a moment to contemplate the stacks and boxes of books as yet unsorted. Still lots of work to do, he thought. It was going to be a good day. He passed from the storage room to the front of the store, lingering for a moment to take a deep breath, to savor as he always did the mingled scents of leather and old paper.
He coughed and clapped a hand over his nose.
"What is that horrible smell?" he gasped.
Arima, apparently undisturbed by the vile aroma, glanced up from a display he'd been arranging.
"I believe," he said, "that our new neighbors are cooking."
Kinshiro groaned. "Don't tell me."
Without waiting for further reply, he raced out of the building, setting the bell over the front door jangling as he burst into the street. Yesterday, the sign over the shop next door had been draped with a tarp. Now it had been pulled away, revealing the logo of the new business. It showed a wizard, complete with starry robe and pointed hat, standing with arms raised dramatically over a bubbling pot. Words arcing above and below him announced that this place was The Curry Cauldron.
Kinshiro felt his stomach roil, partially with nausea and partly with anger. For as long as he could remember, he had never been able to stand strong scents or flavors. He loathed spicy foods, and curry, with its potent smell and thick, lumpy texture, was by far his least favorite food. The mere presence of the noxious stuff in a room with him was enough to make him gag. And now, here was this intruder, obviously intending to spend all day every day befouling the air and spoiling Kinshiro's haven. He could see it clearly: a future spending every day with his customers complaining to him that their precious rare books were permeated with the scent of curry, and he himself coming home every day with his clothes reeking of the stuff. He could just imagine the kind of riffraff a restaurant like that would draw. They would make noise, strew litter everywhere, engage in lewd and rowdy behavior, and drive away the kind of good, well-bred patrons that Kinshiro had worked so carefully to cultivate.
I won't stand for it, he told himself, anger bubbling more fiercely than anything in that ridiculous cartoon cauldron. It's either him or me, but one of us has to go, and damned if it's going to be me.
Gritting his teeth, he stomped his way up to the door and flung it open – or tried to. Apparently the door opened outwards, and he barely managed to stop himself from walking into it. With a noise of frustration, he gave it a jerk that should by rights have torn it off its hinges, but all that happened was that it swung smoothly open and released a fresh billow of warm, curry-scented air.
He was faintly surprised by the interior. For a hive of wretchedness and depravity, it was surprisingly pleasant inside. Someone had gone to some effort to create an ambiance that, while still functional and easy to clean, still looked remarkably like someone's cozy kitchen. Cheerful green and yellow checked curtains shaded the windows, matching the brightly patterned tile on the floor. All the tables had ruffled tablecloths flung over them – plastic, but still giving a slight air of formality and old-fashioned comfort. There were even tiny vases of brightly colored silk flowers on each table. The walls were decorated with antique kitchen implements, vintage ads for food and drink, and a few framed botanical prints of vegetables and herbs, and even Kinshiro's trained eye couldn't tell if they were all genuine or very good reproductions.
At the very back of the room, clearly visible to any customers, was a tidy and well-stocked kitchen area. A large whiteboard hanging above it listed the day's flavors: chicken, beef, vegetable, shrimp, and so forth. A dark-haired young man, his back to the front door, was hard at work there among a long row of bubbling pots, busily cutting, washing, peeling, measuring, and mixing various ingredients. The blond loafer from yesterday was leaning on the counter that separated the kitchen from the rest of the restaurant, presumably providing moral support. He looked up when Kinshiro entered.
"I thought I locked that door," he said, and if it was unclear if he was talking to Kinshiro, the cook, or himself.
"Sorry," said the cook, as he scrambled to pour chopped vegetables into a pot without spilling them. "We're not open yet. You'll have to come back in about an hour."
"I'm not here to eat," said Kinshiro, tone clipped. "I'm Kusatsu Kinshiro. I own the shop next door, and…"
"Oh!" said the cook. He set his mixing bowl down with a clang. "I'm so sorry! I should have come to introduce myself sooner."
He turned around and gave Kinshiro a warm smile. Kinshiro found himself momentarily at a loss for words. "Just your type", Arima had called him, and as usual, Arima was right. It wasn't that he was some sort of Adonis. No one would have put him on the cover of a magazine. He was far from unattractive, but it was a simple, boy-next-door appeal. When Kinshiro had envisioned his nefarious chef, he'd imagined someone overweight and sweaty, but this man was slim, almost delicate, with graceful hands that would look more natural at a piano than a cutting board. His dark hair was slightly untidy, in a way that made Kinshiro long to run his fingers through it and settle it, just before he started doing things to its owner that would get it untidy again. A pair of glasses added an intellectual touch to a fine-featured face, and utterly failed to hide the long lashes of his warm brown eyes. His smile could have outshone the sun.
"Hi!" he said, holding out a hand. "I'm Kinugawa Atsushi. Nice to meet you!"
"Oh, ahh..." said Kinshiro. He struggled to remember what he'd come there to say. He settled for echoing, "Nice to meet you," and closing his hand around Atsushi's. The sudden skin contact did not make Kinshiro's mind any clearer. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed when Atsushi let go.
"So, you're our new neighbor?" he asked. "I hope we'll get along... Oh, hey!"
An idea seemed to occur to him. He turned around and deftly caught up a to-go container from a stack. With quick, practiced movements, he filled it with rice and sauce, snapped it shut, and proudly handed it over to Kinshiro. "Here! Lunch is on me today. Or dinner. It reheats pretty well."
"Um... thank you," said Kinshiro, completely bemused. "I'm sure it will be... very much appreciated."
"I hope you enjoy it!" said Atsushi. "Come back any time. We'll have different flavors on different days."
Kinshiro made a dignified retreat, carrying the box as if its contents might explode if he jostled it. Arima glanced up curiously at him as he made his reappearance.
"Here," said Kinshiro, thrusting the box at him. "Do something with this."
"What is it?" asked Arima, peering uncertainly under the lid.
"Curry," Kinshiro snapped. "I don't want it. Get rid of it."
"If you didn't want it," said Arima, contemplating the box's contents with more interest, "then why did you bring it here?"
"He gave it to me! What was I supposed to do?" Kinshiro snapped. He began pacing the floor. "He offered it to me for free. If I'd turned it down, I would have looked rude and ungrateful, and he'd have the moral high ground."
"And that's bad?" Arima asked.
"Of course it's bad!" said Kinshiro. "He's the enemy. He can't be allowed to stay there. He's going to cause trouble, not to mention bringing down the tone of the neighborhood. At the very least, he needs to realize that this isn't an appropriate venue for selling curry. This is supposed to be a high-class shopping center."
"Actually," said Arima, somewhat indistinctly, "this is really very good."
Kinshiro turned on his heel to discover Arima had found a plastic fork somewhere, and was now sitting behind the counter digging into Atsushi's gift. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Kinshiro felt obscurely jealous.
"What do you think you're doing?" he asked.
"Getting rid of the curry," said Arima reasonably. "If I throw it away, it will just sit in the trash and you'll have to smell it all day. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean I can't."
"Traitor," Kinshiro muttered.
"Just being practical," said Arima. "So, aside from his poor dietary choices, what do you think of our new neighbor?"
"What should I think of him?" Kinshiro retorted. "He's of no interest to me personally. I just want him to take his business somewhere else."
"I see," said Arima. "I thought he was a rather pleasant person. It's a pity you two can't get along."
"Not happening," said Kinshiro, and stomped off to the stockroom.
"So what did you think?" En asked.
"Hmm?" asked Atsushi. His mind was already half on the food he was checking on, and half on replaying the brief encounter with the silver-haired man. He had only dimly registered what his best friend was saying.
"The guy," said En patiently. "What did you think of him?"
"Hm? I don't know," said Atsushi. "I mean, he seemed nice, but he didn't exactly hang around long enough for me to get a feel for his personality."
"No, no, not that," said En. "I mean, didn't I tell you he was hot?"
"Huh...? Oh!" said Atsushi, somehow managing to get his mind back in the present. "You mean he's the one you met the other day?"
"Uh-huh," said En. "So what did you think?"
What did Atsushi think? He thought that as usual, En had been understating his case. It wasn't just that Kinshiro was good looking, it was that he didn't even seem real. He looked like something Atushi would have imagined back when he was a young teenager, about the time he'd just started really getting interested in boys. He'd been reading a lot of fantasy novels at the time, and would fall asleep dreaming of being whisked away by elven princes. Surely this man with hair like moonbeams and eyes like emeralds had more in common with fantasy than the mundane world.
"I suppose he is," Atsushi allowed.
"Could stand to grow about six inches, though," said En.
Atsushi laughed. "I don't think he has much choice about that. Anyway, I think he's fine the way he is. Like a cute little pixie."
En burst out laughing. "I'm gonna tell him you called him that."
"Oh, no you don't!" said Atsushi, but he was laughing too. "If I have anything to say, I'll tell him myself. Now, why don't you make yourself useful and start rolling some silverware?"
"That's work," En complained.
"It's not so bad. You can do it sitting down," said Atsushi. "And you can have lunch when you're done, on the house."
En brightened a little. "Did you make any of the extra spicy kind?"
Atsushi nodded. "What do you expect? It's my favorite, too, you know."
"I guess I could help a little, then," said En, reaching for the basket of silverware. He appeared to think a moment. "You didn't give that guy the extra-spicy kind, did you?"
"No, I played it safe with the vegetables," said Atsushi. "That was right, wasn't it?"
En grinned. "So you do like him! I thought you would."
"Hey! I didn't say that!" Atsushi protested. "I just didn't want to give him something he'd hate. That would be awful."
"Nobody could hate your curry," said En positively.
"I hope you're right," said Atsushi. "I'd really like it if he came back."
En said nothing, but for how much he hated being obliged to do work, he looked remarkably cheerful.
"What is he doing now?"
Kinshiro didn't get an answer to his question, but he hadn't really expected one. For one thing, Arima was currently upstairs stocking shelves. Even if he had been present, Kinshiro doubted even his eternally competent assistant manager would have an answer to this particular question. With no one to rely on but himself, Kinshiro found himself edging closer to the window to get a better look at his neighbor's latest bout of lunacy. Atsushi seemed to be wandering around on the brick walkway outside, measuring out an area and marking places on it with tape. Kinshiro watched this inexplicable behavior for a few minutes before turning resolutely away. He'd managed to avoid talking to Atsushi for the last couple of days and he was determined not to start now.
He's the enemy, he reminded himself sternly. He's ruining your life. It doesn't matter how pleasant he seems or what he looks like...
A rattling sound drew his attention back to the window again. Atsushi had begun to drag an assortment of metal tables and chairs out into the street. Kinshiro watched with fascination as Atsushi began meticulously arranging them. Eventually, curiosity won out, and Kinshiro pushed his way through the front door and went to get some answers.
The door chimed as he passed through it. Atsushi must have heard the sound, because he turned around and smiled. It was an utterly delighted smile, as though Kinshiro were his dearest friend who he had encountered unexpectedly. Kinshiro felt his own mouth trying to curve into a smile in response.
"Hey!" said Atsushi brightly. "It's been a while. How've you been?"
"Fine," Kinshiro replied. "So what's all this about?"
"I got permission to have some extra tables outside," Atsushi explained. "We've already gotten way more business than I was expecting. There isn't room inside for everyone."
"Are you going to be able to keep up with the extra customers?" Kinshiro asked, professional interest winning out over his aloofness.
"Oh, sure," said Atsushi. "I might just have to do some extra prep work in the morning, but I think I ought to be able to handle it. It's just a matter of managing my time." He finished shoving a table into place, stood back to study the effect, and then turned back to grab the next object. "Hey, while you're here, could you give me a hand with this?" Without waiting for an answer, he moved to seize on some sort of post with a weighted base. There were some loops on the top, and after a moment, Kinshiro realized it was meant to have a chain or rope affixed to it, to mark out a boundary. It looked heavy. The muscles in Atsushi's arms and shoulders strained as he tried to drag it across the uneven bricks. It took a moment for Kinshiro to remember he'd just been asked to help, and he scrambled to assist before Atsushi could realize he'd been staring.
"Thanks," said Atsushi, as they got the first post in place.
"Why isn't that friend of yours helping?" Kinshiro asked. "Doesn't he work for you?"
"Who, En?" Atsushi asked. He laughed. "He doesn't work for me. He doesn't work at all if he can help it. He just likes hanging around hoping I'll feed him. Sometimes he'll even do things, if I don't push him too much. He's like one of those particles you learn about in physics - like how light is a wave or a particle depending on whether you're observing it or not. Or maybe I'm thinking of the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle. He only moves when you're not looking at him."
Kinshiro listened to this jumbled account of En's behavior with a sense of unreality.
"You're very well educated for a curry cook," he observed.
Atsushi blushed a little and pushed his glasses up his nose, grinning sheepishly. "Well, I read a lot."
"I see," said Kinshiro. He busied himself with arranging some chairs around the tables Atsushi had already dragged out.
"That's one reason why I picked this location," Atsushi continued. "I was looking at some other places, too, but when they told me there would be a book store right next door, I couldn't resist. I thought it would be wonderful to be able to visit a bookstore every day." He laughed. "And you know, I've been so busy I haven't even come in once."
Kinshiro considered, for a moment, the twisted sense of humor Fate had.
"It's not exactly Barnes and Noble," he said, rather stiffly. "It's a specialty bookstore. We carry autographed books, antiques, first and rare editions, things like that. Most of what I carry is probably out of your price range."
"Oh." For a moment, Atsushi's face fell. Then he rallied himself and said, "I'll bet they're beautiful, though. Even if I can't buy them, I'd love to see them."
Kinshiro quickly turned away, concentrating on hauling another table to its assigned spot so he wouldn't have to look Atsushi in the face.
What's wrong with you? Don't you know I just insulted you? Why are you being so nice to me? Kinshiro could feel his face burning with shame and embarrassment.
"I'll tell you what," he found himself saying. "When we're done with this, why don't you come in and look around a bit? I'm sure your restaurant can spare you a minute or two."
Atsushi brightened in a gratifying manner. "Okay! Just let me get these last posts in place..."
The two of them hauled all the posts into position. Kinshiro set about clipping chains to the loops to create a defined eating space, while Atushi darted inside and came out with a signboard, which he propped next to the entrance. It explained, to anyone who cared, that this seating area was reserved for customers of the Curry Cauldron, and listed the daily specials below. Atsushi stood back and contemplated it thoughtfully.
"Does it look too cluttered to you?" he asked.
"It looks fine," said Kinshiro. He was profoundly disinterested in the sign itself, but obscurely pleased that Atsushi cared. Kinshiro himself liked things to be tidy and sensibly arranged, and it was nice to see that someone else cared about presentation. "Ready to look at books now?"
"Sure!" said Atsushi. His smile was back, bright as ever. Kinshiro let himself smile back. He supposed there was nothing wrong in looking a bit pleased. After all, this was his work, and he could take pride in it if he wanted to.
They stepped out of the heat of a warm sunny day into the cool comfortable bookshop, and Atsushi's eyes widened as he took it in. It was a beautiful place, Kinshiro thought, with all those mellow old books, many of them bound in leather, beautifully tooled or stenciled with gold leaf. The furniture had been carefully selected - an assortment of antique shelves, not perfectly matched but in similar enough styles to create an overall sense of harmony. He'd chosen to install soft lighting, just bright enough to make it easy for customers to browse the books, but still low enough to obscure any defects in the old volumes and give the whole room an air of coziness. The effect was less of walking into a store and more like straying into someone's beloved old library.
"Wow," said Atsushi. "This is amazing."
"Feel free to look around," said Kinshiro, slipping his professional demeanor back on. "I've got some work to take care of."
He stalked off toward the front desk, without looking back to see what Atsushi's expression was.
For the next few minutes, comparative peace settled in. Kinshiro tapped away at his computer, doing things that he probably could have left for Arima or didn't really need to do at all. Atushi browsed silently, looking up at the books with reverence, occasionally slipping one off a shelf to turn a few pages. Kinshiro glanced up at him from time to time, admiring the delicate way Atsushi's hands skimmed over the spines of his books. Seeing him there gave Kinshiro an unsettling little thrill, as he might feel if he'd found Atsushi waiting for him in his living room instead of in a public shop that anyone could walk into. But this was Kinshiro's private space, in a way. He could coax Atsushi into the back room right now and no one would ever know...
He found himself saying, "Why don't you pick out one of those for yourself?"
"Hm?" said Atsushi, apparently startled out of a reverie.
"A book," said Kinshiro. "Pick one out to keep. As a sort of housewarming present."
Atsushi looked doubtful. "I don't know. You said these were expensive..."
Kinshiro shrugged. "We keep all the really valuable ones on the second floor anyway. These are mostly just old. Giving away just one won't do me any harm. Go on."
Atsushi looked thoroughly delighted by this suggestion, and spent several more minutes examining the shelves with a serious gaze. Conversations about particle physics aside, Kinshiro rather expected that he might choose a work of fiction. Perhaps, given the nature of the Curry Cauldron's logo, he'd want an old edition of The Hobbit or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or perhaps one of the leather-bound books of fairy tales. Kinshiro was a little surprised when Atsushi eventually walked up to the front carrying a book on astronomy, a fine old reference book with a deep blue leather cover and beautifully detailed plates of constellations inside.
"You're interested in stars?" Kinshiro asked.
"Only in a sort of amateur way," said Atushi, pushing his glasses up his nose in that way he did when he was feeling self-conscious. "I do like to go stargazing when the weather is warm, though. Are you interested in astronomy?"
"A bit," Kinshiro allowed.
"Well, maybe sometime we could go look at the stars together," Atsushi suggested.
Kinshiro almost choked. Did he just ask me on a date? No, that can't be right. I can't deal with that. If I have to talk to him away from that stupid restaurant, I'm going to end up saying something I'll regret later...
"Maybe so," he said.
It wasn't much of a commitment, but it must have been good enough, because Atsushi positively beamed. Kinshiro busied himself with entering the transaction in his computer and wrapping the book up in tissue paper before bagging it and handing it to Atushi. Atsushi took it reverently. Kinshiro watched him cradling it gently in his capable hands, gazing down at it as if it were a holy relic he couldn't believe he was being allowed to handle, and felt his throat tighten.
"Come back again," he managed to say. "Even if it's just to look."
"I will!" said Atsushi. "Thank you so much. I'll treasure this."
Kinshiro watched him leave, outlined against the sun streaming through the windows, and thought, I love him.
He shook his head irritably. Where had that thought come from? He couldn't be in love with someone he had only met twice. That sort of thing only happened in stories. This was nothing but an infatuation, a figment of his imagination brought on by overactive hormones and a few incidental remarks.
But all the same, Kinshiro couldn't deny that he wanted the chance to love this person. He wanted to talk to him again about particles and books and even the stupid curry. He wanted to go look at the stars with him. He wanted to do things that would make Atsushi smile at him again.
Why couldn't he have decided to set up shop across the street instead? Or sell something like clothes or antique furniture, or at least something that smells appetizing? If he has to feed people, why can't he just make donuts or something?
Briefly, he toyed with a fantasy of convincing Atsushi that what he really wanted was to give up the restaurant business altogether and come over here to sell books. It would be such a neat solution to the whole thorny problem... but no. Atsushi clearly took pride in his work. He wasn't going to give it up just on Kinshiro's say-so.
And I'm not giving up, either. His bookstore meant too much to him for him to give up on it now. He wasn't going to let anyone or anything spoil his dream. It was just that he had a new dream, one just as compelling as the old one, and he didn't want to give up on either of them.
If only there was a way...
"Hey!" said a guest. "I ordered the beef. This is chicken!"
"Sorry, sorry!" said Atsushi. He hastily grabbed a fresh bowl and filled it with rice and beef curry. "Here you go. Is that okay?"
The customer gave him a sullen look. "You need to pay more attention."
Atsushi agreed that he should and managed to soothe the customer down with a handful of coupons and a few more apologies. He went back to his orders with a resolution to be more careful, but his heart wasn't really in it.
Last night, he had taken his new book home and leafed through it, not reading it so much as admiring the simple loveliness of it. He wasn't quite buying what Kinshiro had said, that this book wasn't worth very much - he was savvy enough to know a valuable antique when he laid hands on it. Surely this book was worth more than a bowl or two of curry.
And that was a puzzle, because Atsushi couldn't figure out why he'd been given such a gift. Despite Atsushi's efforts to be friendly and get closer to him, Kinshiro continued to be a mystery. One minute, he was cool and aloof. "You're very well educated for a curry cook." " Most of what I carry is probably out of your price range." Those had definitely been not-too-subtle put-downs, a way of saying that he, Kinshiro, was out of Atushi's league. Then he suddenly turned around and did something like giving Atsushi a book that was probably worth as much money as Atsushi made during a busy lunch rush. And then, just when Atsushi thought he was making some headway, Kinshiro would turn brusque and businesslike again. It was disheartening.
Maybe he doesn't really like me. Maybe he's just trying to be polite. It seemed unlikely, but then, Kinshiro put out the air of a man who was used to having money. Maybe giving away an expensive rare book really was his idea of a trifle. It wasn't as though he didn't have more of them, and really, what did Atsushi really know about the price of old books? Maybe there wasn't any market for outdated books on astronomy no matter how handsome they were.
Maybe he's already seeing someone. That was definitely possible. Atsushi had met Arima a few times and found him an agreeable person, and clearly devoted to Kinshiro. Even a casual conversation with him was enough to make that clear. Arima certainly was handsome, and Atsushi wouldn't have blamed Kinshiro at all for being attracted to him. Maybe Kinshiro's hot-and-cold demeanor was because his loyalty to a partner was warring against a basic attraction. If that was the case, the best thing Atsushi could do would be to bow out gracefully.
He might not even like men at all. That was all too likely. Maybe without meaning to, Atsushi had been coming off as too friendly, and Kinshiro was warning him to back off. If that was the case, Atsushi would have to regretfully shelve his romantic fantasies. He would much rather have tried to pursue a relationship if it were possible, but if Kinshiro only wanted to be friends then he would make the best of it.
He was still mulling over these unsatisfactory possibilities when the lunch crowd finally began to thin out. Atsushi asked his last few customers if they were still doing all right, wiped down a few tables his helpers hadn't gotten to yet, and checked the pots on the stove to see how many of them needed refilling. He was just starting up a few fresh batches of this and that so they'd be ready when the dinner crowd started to arrive when he heard the chime over the door jangle. Atsushi glanced up, putting his professional smile on his face, and then tensed a little as he realized it was Arima.
"What can I do for you?" Atsushi asked. "We haven't been causing a disturbance, have we? I know the crowds in here get pretty loud..."
"No, no, nothing like that," Arima assured him, sliding onto one of the counter stools. "Books, as it turns out, make surprisingly good soundproofing. No, I just wondered if you were still serving lunch."
"For a while longer, yeah," Atsushi agreed, "but we're out of chicken curry and vegetable curry. Can I interest you in the shrimp?"
"That sounds delightful," said Arima.
"Great," said Atsushi. "Rice or noodles?"
Within moments, Arima was happily spooning up curry and rice. Atsushi looked on with pleasure. He never stopped being flattered by seeing people enjoy the things he cooked.
"If you want," he said, "I could box some up for Kinshiro, too. Or did he get lunch somewhere else today?"
Arima raised his head to look at Atsushi thoughtfully. "You really don't know, do you?"
"Know what?" Atsushi asked. His stomach sank. Any conversation that started with "You really don't know, do you?" wasn't likely to end well.
"I suppose I'll have to be the one to tell you, then," said Arima. He sighed and stirred his spoon around in his dish while he considered where to begin. "I suppose the first thing you ought to understand is that Kinshiro loves that shop of his. It isn't just something he's doing to make a few dollars."
Atsushi nodded. "I can understand that."
"It's unfortunate," Arima continued. "He can only keep doing this for a year or two. After that, his family will expect him to take an important position in their corporation. They might let him keep it as a hobby, something to play with on his days off, but it will never be his full-time job again."
"But that's not fair!" Atsushi exclaimed, so vehemently that a few of the remaining customers turned to stare at him. He quickly lowered his voice. "Kinshiro shouldn't have to give up the work he loves..."
"That's what I tell him," said Arima, "but he has a strong sense of family pride. He's resigned himself to the idea that they need him, so he's determined to enjoy this time as much as he can while it lasts."
"I see," said Atsushi softly. "So what has this got to do with me?"
"Just one thing," said Arima. "Kinshiro loathes curry."
"Oh, no," Atsushi groaned. "And I kept trying to give it to him..."
"It was kindly meant," Arima reassured him. "It's only that Kinshiro has a very sensitive palette. He can't stand spicy things, and curry in particular seems to go against his grain. I assumed he must have told you at some point."
"He never said a word," Atsushi admitted.
Arima shrugged. "I suppose he must have been trying to spare your feelings. The fact of the matter is, he's been going out of his mind having to smell curry cooking all day, every day, in this place that's supposed to be his sanctuary."
"I see. I had no idea," said Atsushi. "No wonder he's been acting strangely around me."
"That's why I wanted to tell you," said Arima. "He really is a good sort, at heart. I didn't want you to think he was being rude to you for no reason."
"I wish he'd explained sooner," said Atsushi. "Maybe we could have worked something out."
Arima raised an eyebrow. "Something that doesn't involve cooking right next door to his sanctuary?"
"Well, maybe not that," said Atsushi, blushing. "But I feel like I should at least apologize to him."
"Talking to him wouldn't hurt," Arima agreed. He pushed his empty dish aside. "What do I owe you?"
"It's on the house," said Atsushi.
"That's very generous of you," said Arima.
He sauntered out again, and Atsushi waved a distracted goodbye. He had a lot of new information to digest. He supposed Arima must be right, that there was nothing he could do to stop irritating Kinshiro with his cooking. He couldn't make the curry stop smelling like curry, and he couldn't pull up stakes and move - not with all the money he'd sunk into outfitting this place with all the necessary equipment. As far as he could tell, he was doomed to spend the next year or so irritating someone he would really rather not irritate.
Maybe I can't help that, he thought, but there might be one thing I can do...
There usually weren't a lot of visitors to the bookstore first thing in the morning. Kinshiro generally used that time to get various bits of useful work done: tidying the shelves, checking inventory, searching the internet and newspapers for possible sources of new books, arranging advertising, and other bits of managerial busywork. He was surprised, therefore, when he heard the bell over his door chime only a few minutes after opening.
He was even more surprised to see that it was Atsushi who had entered.
"What are you doing here?" he blurted.
"I was looking for you," Atsushi replied, apparently not deterred by this less than fulsome greeting. "I want your opinion on something."
"What kind of thing?" Kinshiro asked dubiously. He was having trouble imagining what part of Atsushi's life his opinion might have any bearing on.
Atsushi thrust out a plastic spoon and a small styrofoam cup, of the sort Kinshiro was dimly aware that takeout side dishes came packaged in.
"I want you to try this for me and tell me what you think," he said.
"Um," said Kinshiro. "I don't know if I'm the right person to..."
"It's okay," said Atsushi. "Arima explained to me that you don't like spicy things. This isn't like that. I made it just for you, so try it, please?"
"For me?" Kinshiro was already reaching out a hand to take the cup.
Atsushi flushed a little. "I wanted to make something you would like."
Kinshiro opened the lid of the cup and peered inside. It certainly looked like curry to him. He gave it a cautious sniff. It didn't smell bad, anyway. Cautiously, he dipped his spoon in near the very edge of the cup, coming up with a spoonful of rice and the tiniest dab of sauce. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and put it in his mouth.
It was nothing like he expected. The sauce was delicately flavored, smooth and creamy and slightly sweet. His eyes opened wide in surprise.
"It's delicious!" he said.
Atsushi beamed. "I hoped you'd like it."
"I could eat this every day," said Kinshiro sincerely. He scooped up a larger spoonful of rice and sauce and began munching happily.
"You're welcome to it any time," said Atsushi. "En and I have always liked the spicy kind best, but after Arima talked to me yesterday, I decided that from now on, I'm always going to have at last one mild flavor on tap, too. Partly for the sake of customers who might not like spicy things as much as I do... but mostly for you."
Kinshiro nearly dropped the spoon. "Me? Why?"
Atsushi shifted nervously. "Well, because I was really sorry about spoiling your bookstore. I didn't mean to make trouble for you."
"You have no reason to be sorry," said Kinshiro. "I've been nothing but rude to you this whole time. I'm the one who should be apologizing."
Atsushi smiled a little. "You weren't that bad. You helped me move all that heavy furniture, and you gave me a book. And you like stars. You can't be all bad. I'd like to get to know what you're really like, when you're not mad at me."
"I'd like that too," said Kinshiro quietly. He set the empty cup on the counter and turned to look seriously at Atsushi. "Though I still don't know what you'd want with me."
"Well, ah..." said Atsushi. Kinshiro could see him struggling to make up his mind before saying, "For one thing, you're the most gorgeous person I've ever seen."
Have you looked in a mirror lately? he thought abstractedly. Then the full import of what Kinshiro had just said sunk in.
"You really mean that?" he asked.
Atsushi nodded, cheeks flaming. "But I'll understand if you don't feel that way, or... or if you're not interested in..."
It sounded to Kinshiro as if letting Atsushi talk much longer would result in him talking himself straight into retracting what he'd just said. That was the last thing Kinshiro wanted. Without stopping to consider, he did the first thing he could think of to stop the flow of chatter: he took a quick step forward, pulled him down, and kissed him.
For an instant, both of them stood rigid, Kinshiro amazed at his own impulsiveness and Atsushi simply amazed. Then, gradually, they began to relax. Kinshiro gave an involuntary sigh of relief - everything was all right, Atsushi did want him, Kinshiro hadn't scared him away. He was pressed close enough now to Atsushi that he could feel his chest rise and fall in much the same action. It was so unexpected and so perfectly simultaneous that both of them began to laugh. They pulled apart, still laughing with relief, holding each other's hands and leaning together so that their foreheads touched.
"You know, you're even more gorgeous when you smile," Atsushi said.
"I have a feeling I'm going to be smiling a lot more in the futre," Kinshiro replied.
"Can we really make this work?" Atsushi asked.
"I don't know," Kinshiro admitted. "I want to try."
Atsushi smiled. "Even if it means putting up with my curry?"
"Well," said Kinshiro slowly, "I've been thinking about that..."
A few days later, Atsushi was strolling through the mall, admiring all the shops. It was his day off, but he had good reasons for coming back anyway. For one thing, he wanted to have a look in at his restaurant to make sure everything was running smoothly in his absence, and that none of his employees needed him for anything. It was nice, too, just to walk up and down the street and enjoy the shops as a customer and not just seeing them from the inside of his own workplace.
Also, there was another reason.
Atsushi paused a moment outside Kusatsu's Rare Books. It was silent today, the doors locked and curtains drawn. A sign on the front door announced that the shop was "CLOSED for renovations". Atsushi knocked anyway.
"Coming!" called a muffled voice from inside. A moment later, the door was opened by a smiling Arima.
"Here already? Very punctual," he said. "Kinshiro is in the back. You can come in and wait while I fetch him."
Atsushi thanked him and stepped into the bookstore. It was more crowded than usual, owing to the presence of several workmen, who had spread ladders, tools, and other equipment all around the room. Kinshiro's precious books and furniture had been wrapped with several layers of tarps, and much of the room's contents had been moved to keep them safe from dust and falling objects.
Within a few seconds, Kinshiro emerged from the back room, nervously adjusting his collar and smoothing down his hair. Atsushi smiled at him.
"Renovations, huh?" he asked.
Kinshiro nodded. "A top-of-the-line air filtration and humidity control system. I've decided it will be worth it in the long run to protect these books."
"And, incidentally," Arima put in, "filter out any scents from the restaurant next door."
Atsushi laughed. "So no more curry worries, huh?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Kinshiro. "I was starting to get used to it. Speaking of which, what's the dinner special tonight?"
"For you? Chicken and apple," Atsushi replied.
"That sounds amazing," said Kinshiro. "We'll drop by for dinner later, then."
Atsushi gave him a sidelong smile as they began strolling towards the door.
"You know," he said, "I still have some of the test batch I made last night back at home. There's enough for two people, so if you wanted to have dinner somewhere quieter than the restaurant..."
"I'm sold," said Kinshiro fervently.
Atsushi grinned. Life was good.
The two of them strolled along the path until they came to the Twisted Root, a cozy little tea shop that Kinshiro had wanted to try. Within moments, the two of them had been seated at one of the outside tables, and were enjoying a pot of green tea and assorted sweets. Atsushi smiled across the table at his companion, enjoying seeing Kinshiro so relaxed and happy. It was amazing, the difference a few little changes in his life had made. Kinshiro noticed Atsushi observing him and reached across the table to squeeze his hand. Atsushi squeezed back. For a moment, tea and cake was forgotten as they gazed into each other's eyes.
"Hey," said Atsushi suddenly, catching a glimpse of movement, "what do you think that's all about?"
Kinshiro turned in his seat to have a look at the spectacle. A pair of young men, one with long flowing hair and the other who wore his caught back in a headband, were having a blazing row while a third young man looked on with a mix of amusement and exasperation. Now that Atsushi was paying attention, scraps of dialogue floated across the street to reach his ears.
"... don't need your perfumes stinking up my clothes!" the one with the headband was shouting.
"As if!" the other replied. "You should be thanking me for imparting something of value to those rags you call clothing!"
"Rags? What are you calling rags? Just because people don't walk out of here looking like a bunch of frilly little girls' dolls..."
The third man stepped forward and put his hands on the young man's shoulders.
"Come on, Ryuu," he said, trying gently to steer him away. "Just let it go."
"Not until Gero here apologizes," Ryuu grumbled.
The long-haired man huffed. "I think I'm the one who's owed an apology. Really, Naruko, you aren't going to take his side over mine, are you?"
At his table, Kinshiro chuckled. "I don't think they like each other very much."
"I guess not," Atsushi agreed, amused.
Kinshiro settled back in his chair and sipped his tea, looking speculative.
"It will be interesting," he mused, "to see how that turns out..."