(After much prodding from several readers on LJ hugs them here's a story I wrote a while back. Hopefully, it will have the same impact it had on the readers back there. )

The story is called Nikujaga which means 'Meat and Potatoes'. It's a meal that's not very common but enjoyed none the less in many homes.
Why did I choose this title? I was struck by a particular scene in the anime/manga Monster in which the Japanese doctor prepared this meal (nikujaga) for a family that was broken apart. The food was a little bit of nostalgia and did more to bring this family back together. It was a simple meal but yet a powerful one because it truly showed that the simple act of eating with a loved one can make a whole world of difference than being alone.

Hopefully, I was able to convey that message in this story. Enjoy!


Nikujaga:
(Life's Simple Pleasures)


Uchiha Sasuke stood before the vendor, sharp dark eyes staring at the variety of vegetables that sat on display before him. He shifted the large brown bag in his hands to ease the cramp that was beginning to creep up his arm as he carefully weighed his options. He wanted to go for something simple tonight – so perhaps Miso soup would be the best. That and some white rice should suffice for dinner. But he had been eating a lot of Miso the past few weeks and it was becoming a chore to eat the same thing over and over again. He wanted to try something different – to be able to savor something that didn't taste so…well…watery.

He idly wondered how a certain blond managed to survive on ramen day in and day out. Surely, Naruto would want to try something different once in a while, right? In fact, Sasuke was sure that somewhere deep down inside, Naruto did harbor a need for something new – the boy was just too dumb to realize it of course.

And just why am I thinking of him anyway? He chided himself with a light snort as he glared at a stalk of celery as if it was responsible for his wandering thoughts. The vendor noticed the look and swallowed tightly, wondering if there was something wrong with his produce. He didn't need anyone to start trouble for him and this boy looked as if he had that look about him. If the worst should happen, the man would just holler for help and some able-bodied shinobi would be able to subdue the boy if he did to go crazy.

Sasuke, completely unaware of the scrutiny he was receiving, continued to eye the vegetables. Again his thoughts wandered as he thought of the last time he had actually eaten anything with Naruto.

It must have been six months at least, he deduced with his brows furrowed in thought. And that was only because Sakura had made some rice-cakes for them. If Sasuke remembered correctly, Naruto had eaten them happily enough, which meant that the boy might indeed have a palette for something different.

So, he's not averse to other meals, he concluded with a small quirk of his lips. If Naruto could plow through Sakura's less than perfect rice-cakes, then who knew what else the blond could chow on.

"Uuum…sir?" the vendor called out meekly. "Can I help you with anything? Is there a particular vegetable you are looking for?"

Sasuke tightened his arms around the bag, which was already full of bottled fruit drinks, a bag of fresh fish and a few spices. Of course, he had planned to have Miso again tonight…but suddenly…

"Aaah," a woman groaned as she spoke to her friend. "I tried to cook Nikujaga for the family the other night and it came out all wrong. Everything was way too tender."

"That's because you are supposed to only fry the potatoes first, Nami-chan. Did you do that?"

"Eh?! Fry it first?! I forgot to do that!"

"Dummy," the other friend laughed. "Everyone knows you have to fry the vegetables and the meat before you do anything else. That's where the flavor comes in. Oh…and you've got to simmer it for about twenty minutes afterwards…"

"After adding the sugar, soy sauce and fish stock of course…"

"True, true. You are getting the hang of it…"

Their voices slowly faded away as they went out of hearing range but it was more than enough for Sasuke. He felt a sudden headache come on and he winced at the memory that came flooding back to his mind.

/ "Have you finished your food, Sasuke?" /

/ "But I'm no longer hungry, mother. I need to go and watch big brother practice." /

/ "Can't you see that Itachi is finishing his own food? Now sit down and finish up!" /

/ "Moooom…" /

/ "If you don't finish your nikujaga, Sasuke, you can't come with me." /

/ "Eh? You too, big brother?" /

/ "Yes, now eat and hurry up or I'm leaving without you." /


Sasuke held the bag in an arm and rubbed his temple with the other. He had really liked the meal and could remember the delicious smell of meat and potatoes simmering over the fire in his mother's kitchen. He had sometimes watched her cook it – had studied her careful movements as she would sing a song or regale him with some tale or another.

Sasuke felt his throat constrict painfully and he took a deep breath while shaking his head lightly. He had suppressed that memory – any and all memories of the little happy moments he had had with his parents. And now listening to those two women talk about a meal that his family had once loved had done more to bring back memories of a time when all had been well in his life. He eyed the brown, rounded vegetables sitting innocuously amongst the others and before he could control himself, his hand reached out to pick one up. He tested its weight, ignoring the eager look on the vendor's face as he tried to remember how his mother had always selected the best vegetable.

/ "You must always make sure they are firm and yet slightly tender, Sasuke." /

/ "Eh? Why is that, mother?" /

/ "Because it will not become too soft quickly. And the taste lasts longer too." /

/ "Wow…" /

/ "You can close your mouth now, Sasuke." /


A small smile came to his lips as his mother's giggle resonated in his mind. He could remember Itachi once calling him a 'woman' just because he showed a lot of interest in his mother's cooking. Of course he had defended himself by asking what was wrong with loving to cook?

He squeezed the potato gently, noticing that it was just firm enough. Just what was wrong with learning how to cook? Sasuke loved it despite what many might think. It was a time to create something that was to nourish your mind and body – at least his mother had told him that. The joy of cooking, however, came from sharing it with someone else.

He squeezed the vegetable a bit harder.

He hadn't had the joy of experiencing that since the incident. He had cooked – but only for himself. Eating in solitude was something he had always welcomed and had not questioned but he knew within himself that each spoonful of food placed on his tongue would taste a whole lot better if there was someone beside him to share it with.

"Are you going to buy that, sir?" the vendor asked again. His apprehension was slowly turning to irritation. Would this boy never leave his stall?

Sasuke finally lifted his gaze to stare impassively at the man for a moment. Indeed, eating alone had always been his habit but tonight he was determined to change all of that. And with a soft nod, he pointed towards the potatoes and said quietly but firmly,

"I'll have six of those please."


Naruto took a deep breath and poured out the contents of his wallet onto the table. With hands that trembled slightly, he began to count out the spare change, lips moving slowly as he tallied each glittering coin. As his finger touched the last one, he sighed and laid his head upon the table in defeat. The accompanying sound of his stomach growling had him whimpering softly. He hadn't eaten since his quick and last cup of ramen in the morning and to make it worse, he didn't have enough money to get himself something from Ichiraku's shop.

They were supposed to get their pay for their last mission tomorrow but Naruto was still worried at just how fast his last paycheck had been spent. Sakura had warned him – had told him to get some kind of checkbook to keep track of his expenses. But he hadn't listened or rather hadn't seen a reason to do so. He had been confident in his spending abilities and had thought he would be able to get through the week with no worries. Damn Chouji and Kiba! Both of them had made him gamble it away in the fight between two jounin last week. Now, he was poor, hungry and getting cranky.

His stomach growled again and he groaned. He could go to Iruka-sensei's house and pouch off him for food but he wasn't sure the teacher would welcome him at this time. The Academy was getting ready for the final exams and Naruto was sure Iruka-sensei would be too busy getting said exams ready. He wondered if Kakashi-sensei would be willing to help him out, but he remembered that the jounin was away on a mission at the moment. Sakura might be willing to feed him but Naruto found himself unable to entertain that thought. The girl might be friendlier now, but he still wasn't all too comfortable just strolling to her house to ask for dinner.

Maybe I can just beg Ichiraku-san to give me some food and I'll pay him back later. I'm sure he wouldn't mind.

Now, that thought was comforting to him! And getting to his feet quickly, he made his way out of his apartment as fast as his legs could take him.

Sasuke watched the meat and potatoes simmer within the pot for a few seconds before dipping the spoon into the broth. He raised it to his lips (blowing on it softly to cool it a bit) and took a sip. His lips curled at the taste before it broke out into a small smile at how good it tasted - not too salty and not too bitter. In fact, it was just perfect. He knew his mother would have been proud if she could see him now.

Wiping his hands against the white apron, he turned off the burner and stretched his aching muscles before tossing the cloth to the side. He helped himself to a good and hearty portion and then walked into the bedroom to sit upon the floor. He picked up his fork and muttered a quick 'Itadakimasu' before slipping a forkful of meat and potatoes into his mouth. He closed his eyes and chewed slowly, willing the familiar rich flavor of the food he had loved to fill his senses.

But to his disappointment, he could feel nothing. Yes, the food did taste good but yet…it didn't. He chewed even more slowly, his eyes wandering around the quiet room as he felt something in his heart grow heavier and heavier.

It wasn't the same. No matter how well he cooked this…

/ "Nothing makes a meal taste better than having a loved one around to share it with, Sasuke. Always remember that." /

"I remember, mother," he whispered softly as he dropped his fork and raised his knees to bury his face within them. "I remember…and yet I have no one to share this with…"

Naruto…

"He might have eaten already," he argued with the tiny voice that had whispered the blond's name, although he could feel his heart beat quicken at the thought. Share his food with Naruto? He had done it before…why couldn't he do that again?

He might be hungry. You never know unless you…

"Go to him," he finished as he lifted his head to stare at the plate of food. He swallowed tightly, suddenly feeling ridiculously nervous at what he was planning to do. Did Naruto even know that Sasuke cooked on his own? Would Naruto laugh and make fun of him? Shit. He didn't want to have to go through another period of self-doubt. And realizing that he would have to move now before he got even more nervous; Sasuke leapt to his feet and made his way to the kitchen again.

This time, he pulled down two large bento boxes from the shelves and with a care that would have surprised anyone, Sasuke began to prepare their meals.

Naruto kicked at a stone on the ground with a heavy sigh, hands sunk within the pockets of his pants as he continued to walk down the street. As if the gods had been against him all day, Ichiraku's place was already closed for the evening as the old man had had some family emergency. Naruto dared not go into any other ramen or soba shop for he was sure he would not be welcomed – at least without money.

The delicious smell of some food he wasn't really sure of filled his nostrils and he found himself walking rather absently towards it. He stopped before the house, his hands tightening into fists as he watched the family through the window. They looked happy – father joking, mother serving out the food that looked like udon and the children giggling and smiling in response. Naruto felt a sharp ache sear through his chest at the sight and he turned away quickly, eyes burning with unshed tears at the realization that he had never had a family meal before. He had never let such things bother him and had become immune to such thoughts and sights, but tonight seemed so much more different. He had never felt more alone in his life.

His stomach growled again and he wrapped his arms around his torso before giving in to the weakness in his knees and collapsing on the steps that led up to a small temple. He had no idea how and when he had reached here, but he was too tired and hungry to care much.

If only something or someone would appear to rescue him…

"What are you doing out here, Naruto?"

…anyone but Sasuke. He just wasn't in the mood to deal with the other boy's haughty attitude right now. In fact, he wasn't going to put up with it and if Sasuke wanted to start a fight then he was going to be more than ready to take him on. With a low growl, he lifted his head to give a smart-assed retort, only to blink as the mouthwatering smell of food – good food – assailed his senses. He sniffed the air in appreciation, blue eyes widening in anticipation for who could have answered his prayers. It finally dawned on him that it was Sasuke who was holding a basket. And the smell was coming from the basket. What could this mean?

"Well?" Sasuke asked again as he watched the gamut of expressions race across the blond's face. A part of him wanted to be smug and to make Naruto suffer a bit longer for it was obvious that the shinobi was hungry. Naruto's features always seemed to become much paler whenever he had had nothing to eat for a long period of time.

Hn. Shows just how much I've been hanging around him if I even noticed that, Sasuke thought with an inward sigh. He held the basket a bit higher, trying to quell down the nerves that he had been fighting all the way here in his search for the blond. He had gone to Naruto's house and had been disappointed to find the place empty. His next stop had been at Ichiraku's (naturally) and after asking a few passersby if they had noticed a crazy looking blond walking about, Sasuke had finally found his rival here. Thankfully, the temple ground was empty and since daylight was fading fast, long shadows from the trees that surrounded them gave off a sheltered feel that Sasuke was immensely grateful for.

"Is that food?" Naruto asked, trying not to show the desperation in his voice as he continued to eye the small basket.

Sasuke gave a curt nod and held it out as if brandishing a weapon. His cheeks were now filled with color as he muttered quickly. "Do you want to share it with me?"

Naruto blinked. "Eh?"

Wishing the ground would open up to swallow him whole, the dark-haired boy spoke a bit louder. "I made some Nikujaga and would like to share it with you…if you're hungry. If not, I can just take it to…"

"I am! I want to! I mean, I would like to!" Naruto exclaimed quickly as he rose to his feet, only to stagger into the other's boy as his knees gave way. Sasuke gasped in surprise but managed to hold out his arms in time to catch the blond. His blush darkened as he listened to Naruto's low moan of weariness.

"You're so light," he mumbled gruffly. "Do you eat at all?"

"All the time," Naruto replied with a sheepish smile as he tried to balance himself while holding onto Sasuke's arms. "I just didn't have enough money today…"

"Do you ever have enough money?"

"I…"

"Just sit down," Sasuke interrupted quickly as standing this close to Naruto was a bit…worrisome. He led them towards a bench and cursing himself inwardly at how much his hands were trembling, he opened up the basket and brought out the neatly packed bento for Naruto. Holding it up, he took a deep breath and presented his offering, his heart pounding so hard he was sure Naruto would hear it.

"Wow…thanks, Sasuke," came the heartfelt words of gratitude as the blond reached for the food. He gave the most brilliant smile to the dark-haired boy and for a heart-stopping moment, Sasuke felt a ridiculous giddy sensation of pleasure course through his body. He had brought that smile to Naruto's face and that meant so much more to him than he would ever admit.

He picked up his own box and as both said 'Itadakimasu' – Naruto's much louder, of course – Sasuke began to eat slowly. He tried hard not to stare at Naruto, wondering what the other boy was thinking. He hadn't put in too much salt after all, had he? He had overcooked the meat and potatoes, hadn't he? It wouldn't taste as good, would it? Oh shit…what would he do if Naruto hated it?!

"Uwwwaaaah! This is so great, Sasuke! Did you make it yourself?!"

His cheeks burned but not from anger at the loud cry, but rather with delight, pleasure, complete and utter joy. Not lifting his head, he replied almost shyly as he picked at his food. "Yes, yes, I did…"

"It's really great, Sasuke," Naruto enthused with a fervent nod as he continued to eat hungrily. "I didn't know you could cook."

"There's a lot you don't know about me," came the sudden reply that had both boys blinking in surprise at one another. "Eh…not that it concerns you," Sasuke finished hastily.

"Ah…okay…"

They ate in companionable silence each with small smiles on their young features as they savored the delicious meal that had been cooked from the heart. They could both taste it in each bite. The rich flavor of meat and potatoes caused their tongues to tingle with appreciation. Sasuke could feel it again – the same sensation and pleasure he had once received from eating Nikujaga. He wasn't with his family this time around but this situation would do just fine. He really couldn't have imagined sharing this meal with anyone else anyway.

And as the sun began its slow descent behind the mountains in the horizon, Sasuke, without making eye contact with Naruto, asked quietly. "Hey…Naruto…if you like…I could cook again for you. You don't have to keep eating ramen all the time you know."

He held his breath waiting for an outburst of rejection but to his surprise and immense delight, Naruto gave a small but warm smile.

"Sure thing, Sasuke. It would be nice for a change…"

"Ah…"

He blushed again and gave a small nod although he was still unable to look into Naruto's eyes. He lifted his gaze to the heavens and wondered if his mother was watching. He hoped he had made her proud as he finally understood what she meant after all these years.

Good food always tastes so much better in the company of loved ones.

Of course this didn't mean that he loved Naruto or anything…did it?

He gasped and sat upright causing the blond to blink at him in surprise at the sudden movement.

"What's the matter, Sasuke?"

"No…nothing!" he replied quickly as he began to clear up their boxes as fast as he could. "I have to go back home now."

"Let me help you…"

"Don't bother…"

"But it's my only way to repay you for…"

"I said don't bother, Naruto!"

"Oi, you were so nice a moment ago."

"Well, I'm not nice anymore. Now let me go."

"Can I at least walk with you?"

"No!"

"Why are you all red?"

"I am not red…"

"Are you sick, Sasuke? I could get you some medicine…"

And as their arguing voices faded off into the distance, the lingering smell of a meal shared between rivals, hung thickly in the air as if signaling the possible beginning of a whole new relationship.

Owari

Udon - Japanese style noodles.