Written for treneka for Yuletide 2006.
* * *
Learning to Fly
* * *
In retrospect, thought Ono, kissing Chikage had been a bad idea. Given the opportunity to do things over again, he would definitely skip the part where he kissed Chikage. No matter how thrilling the proximity of Chikage's face to his, how attractive the sweet mixture of distress and absolute trust in Chikage's expression, how easy it would be -- had been, in fact -- to close the distance and just touch ...
None of these things would have any power to sway his resolution, Ono decided, if he was confronted with the choice again. He would limit himself to a pat on Chikage's broad shoulder and a comforting word. He would even back away -- yes, that would have been exactly the right thing to do: back away, ignore the tender curve of Chikage's upper lip, return things to the status quo with some light chatter. He saw himself doing it so vividly that it was almost as if it had really happened. He felt almost virtuous.
"We need another tray of the pears-and-chocolate tartes," said Tachibana. The door closed again like a trap snapping shut.
"Is it me, or is there something a little weird about the geezer today?" said Kanda.
"I wonder," said Ono.
Kanda squinted at him thoughtfully. It was strange being under that gaze when it wasn't blurred by gauzy adoration. Ono wondered if this was how Kanda looked when he'd weighed up his opponents, back in his days in the ring.
"Did you and the geezer have a fight?" said Kanda.
Ono had learnt long ago not to let his grip slip on a tray even when assaulted by strong emotion. It was a skill that had saved him more than once in a tense situation in the kitchen -- of which he'd had more than his fair share.
"What? No! No, no, no, of course not. Why would you think that?"
Or perhaps he'd had exactly his fair share of tense situations. How hard would it have been not to kiss Chikage? Other people did it every day. Tachibana had lived with him for years and, presumably, not kissed him in all that time.
"The atmosphere's just kinda tense, that's all," said Kanda.
"He must have got out of the wrong side of bed this morning," said Ono lightly. "Sometimes it's like working with a porcupine, isn't it? Hahaha."
Kanda's eyebrows drew together. Ono quaked.
"Master," said Kanda, "do you think guys go through menopause?"
"I really didn't -- what?"
"Maybe the old man's feeling his age," said Kanda.
"I," said Ono. He gathered his wits.
"I've never heard of such a thing," he said faintly. "Anyway, I really don't think that would be Tachibana's problem, even if such a thing did exist. He's still quite young, you know."
"Hah!" said Kanda. "He's 32 going on a hundred. He probably just saw somebody being happy today and hurt his gall-bladder being bitter about it."
"You're almost exactly right," said Ono.
"I expect," he added hastily when Kanda looked curious. "Shouldn't you check up on those macaroons? I'll make a start on the mille-feuilles."
He felt a twitch of guilt. After all, it had not been Tachibana's fault that he had had the bad timing to enter the kitchen just as Ono had so forgotten the demands of propriety and good sense as to kiss Chikage. He hadn't even said anything when it had happened. In the stunned silence, with the choux Parisienne Chikage had dropped smeared across the floor and his lips still tingling from the kiss, Ono had been certain that he was going to find himself out on his ear. He had heard Chikage say, with his usual lack of a sense of the occasion, "Oh, you're back, my lord! How did the meeting go?" but he heard it as if from a distance, with that detachment that descends upon you when a disaster has struck and you are awaiting the aftermath.
Tachibana had blinked, but instead of the blistering reproof Ono had expected, he'd said, after a beat only perceptible because of the incredible awkwardness of the situation,
"They're jacking up their prices. I might look into finding another supplier for our butter. What do you think?"
Ono realised Tachibana was speaking to him, and that no four-letter words had been used. The sky appeared to be in its usual position. Nothing was on fire.
"Uh," said Ono. He shook himself. It would be inappropriate to fall on his knees and thank God. "The other suppliers are improving, but they still can't compare to the one we're dealing with now. I don't think there's anyone better in Japan. How much are they demanding?"
"Well, maybe we'll stick with them," said Tachibana. "Or cut out the middleman. I could use a trip to France."
"My lord is leaving? No!" said Chikage, and slipped in the cream.
In the subsequent mess of shouting and concern, Tachibana hadn't said anything. He had sent Chikage home to get changed, but even when he left, Tachibana hadn't said anything. Kanda had come in and they had opened the shop for the day, and Tachibana hadn't said anything. The weight of everything that hadn't been said was pressing down on the air like a stormcloud. Ono could feel a headache coming on.
"You know, Master, if you did have a fight with the geezer, I could beat him up for you," said Kanda. The adoration was back: he looked at Ono, doe-eyed. "I'm on your side."
"You might be the only one," murmured Ono. There must be stupider things to have done than kiss Chikage. Ono just couldn't think of any at the moment.
"What?" said Kanda.
"Thank you," said Ono. "That really won't be necessary. Everything's fine."
* * *
The strange thing was, he seemed to have told the truth. Chikage acted perfectly normally around him, though once or twice Ono caught him gazing at him dreamily. Chikage invariably blushed and smiled when he was surprised in the act, giving Ono a bashful look from under his lashes, like a smitten schoolgirl. It was terribly attractive, but it also turned Ono cold with terror. He'd underestimated Chikage's adorable crush on him, he saw. He didn't like to imagine what Tachibana was going to do to him when he hurt Chikage.
Ono knew himself well enough not to make that an if.
Worse than that was the prospect of hurting Chikage itself. He wasn't careful in these matters because he didn't think he was worth being careful, and as for the other people involved -- well, people got over pain. He knew that from personal experience, even if he couldn't remember very well how it had felt at the time. But to hurt Chikage, who lay himself open to emotion as if he had never heard of sorrow or betrayal ... that would be worse than carelessness. Ono remembered Tachibana on that fateful morning, checking Chikage's head briskly as Ono got the ruined choux cleaned up: "At least we won't have to put anyone on notice to watch for signs of concussion," Tachibana had grumbled. "I have to keep an eye on you all the time anyway."
"Yes, thank you, my lord," said Chikage brightly.
"I'm not sure how we could tell the difference if you got brain damage," said Tachibana. But his hands on Chikage's hair had been gentle. Ono remembered thinking that maybe nothing could have been better for Tachibana than to have somebody to look after. What kind of person would Ono be if he destroyed that? What kind of miserable selfish coward, to be capable of such a double betrayal?
Tachibana himself seemed aware of the potential for disaster Ono had created in that unthinking moment. He spoke to Ono more or less as he had done before the incident, but there was no longer the ease there had been between them. They had, Ono thought, been friends. He was not particularly used to having friends. It upset him that he was only able to put the name to their relationship now it was no longer accurate.
It was on the third day after the incident that Tachibana came into the kitchen looking grim. Ono abruptly wished he had not sent Kanda off for more sugar. He could tell the advent of a reckoning when he saw one.
"We'll be making that tartelette aux noix of Eiji's a regular product, and you're telling him because I can't face the thought of the bastard's cocky face," said Tachibana. "And we need to talk."
"Can it wait?" said Ono cravenly. "I'm very busy at the moment, and these mille-feuilles ... "
He swallowed his words on an "eep!" when Tachibana pointed a militant finger at him.
"I want to make this absolutely clear," said Tachibana. "I'm only doing this because you're the genius pastry chef and allowances have to be made for genius, all right? Otherwise I'd never do anything so unmanly as try to 'talk about it'. But I'm doing it anyway because I'm just that considerate!"
"That's quite all right, I don't mind if we skip the talking -- "
"What the hell is wrong with you? I'd be the first to admit Chikage's not the sharpest when it comes to detecting subtlety, and he hasn't noticed yet that you've been avoiding him, but he does realise something's wrong. And why do you jump if I so much as ask you to pass the meringues?"
Ono found to his surprise that he was angry.
"Don't you think it would be strange not to be tense under the circumstances?" he snapped. "I should have thought you'd be glad I was trying to keep away from Mr. Chikage!"
"Why would I be glad?" said Tachibana. "He's my friend."
"He's mine too," said Ono.
"Oh, is that what they're calling it these days," muttered Tachibana.
"It was only a kiss!" said Ono.
Tachibana had seemed calm until then, but his face changed.
"Not to Chikage," he said. "Are you telling me you kissed him thinking it didn't mean -- listen, don't you even understand what kind of a man he is? Once I asked him about what he thought about sex, and he told me -- what was the stupid phrase he used again -- he told me it was like a field of flowers! He meant it, too!"
Ono began to have the feeling that while he was having a conversation, and Tachibana was having a (slightly louder) conversation, they were not sharing the same conversation. The anger dribbled out of him, leaving concern and a growing suspicion that he might be about to feel rather silly.
"I need to ask you a question before I tender my resignation," he said.
Tachibana's eyes grew round. "You're resigning?"
"Do you actually -- " The thought was so absurd that Ono's nerve almost failed him. But it was the only explanation that fit Tachibana's reaction. "Would you actually not mind to my sleeping with Mr. Chikage?"
"Of course I'd mind! Do you have any idea how awkward it would be for me to walk in on your shenanigans?" said Tachibana. "But never mind about that. Back to this matter of your resignation -- "
"You mean," said Ono, feeling out the ground, "you wouldn't object."
Tachibana looked blank.
"You don't want to harry me out of the bakery and chase me down the street beating me on the head with a slipper because I kissed Chikage?" said Ono.
"Of course I -- did that actually happen to you?"
"That's not important," said Ono hastily. "You don't think it'd be a bad idea?"
Tachibana stared at him.
"Never mind," said Ono, feeling foolish. He picked up a rag to wipe his hands, just to have something to do with them. "I'll just -- I'm sorry about all this. Kanda's good enough to take my place, though you might want to polish him by sending him to France ... "
"It's always a bad idea to fall in love," said Tachibana.
Ono put down the rag. He set his hands flat on the counter.
"I wasn't talking about falling in love," he said.
"Maybe," said Tachibana. It was extraordinary to hear him say anything in a mild tone of voice. Ono almost looked up to check if some member of Tachibana's family had entered the room.
"I'm not Chikage's father," said Tachibana. "Even if he seems to think I'm his mom. Why would I 'object'?"
"I don't know," said Ono. It was as if he was standing on the edge of a precipice.
He had always avoided risk in all his relationships. He had come out of affair after affair safe and whole, even if he bore bruises or broken ribs as a testament to the fact that the other party had not learnt enough to preserve himself from danger. He was, essentially, a coward -- incapable of Chikage's recklessness, the recklessness of a man who can fly because he can close his eyes and believe the ground does not exist.
"I could hurt him," said Ono. He had not known he'd been persuaded until he realised he had not said would.
"You know," said Tachibana, "it must be true that God protects fools. You'd think by now, Chikage would be paraplegic, or lying in a coma in a hospital somewhere, from an accident tying his shoelaces or something. But he has a talent for avoiding serious injury. Maybe it's just luck."
He leant against the counter, inspecting the mille-feuilles.
"Yes," said Ono. "I'm going to have Kanda try one when he gets back."
Tachibana stuck a finger into a slice and drew it out covered in whipped cream. He licked it off his finger.
Ono was trained in concealment, could slip into it like a second skin even after years of freedom. He did not look away.
"Tastes like sugar," said Tachibana. "Maybe you should trust Chikage more. I didn't think he'd be worth a damn working here, but it's worked out okay so far. You might be surprised too."
"Maybe I don't want to," said Ono. "It would change things."
"So? Everything you do changes things," said Tachibana. "It's not always a bad thing."
Ono didn't often know what Tachibana was thinking, but he knew right then, as clearly and certainly as if he had looked into Tachibana's mind, that Tachibana was remembering the time he had broken Ono's heart.
Ono was moved.
"You know," he tried one last time. "I really don't equate sex with love."
"I'd noticed," said Tachibana. He pushed off the counter. "Work that out yourself. I'm not your shrink."
"Comfortable, aren't you?" said Ono. He could not help feeling a little bitter. It must be that made him take a step closer and skim his fingers along the side of Tachibana's face. Tachibana stilled.
"It's easier when you're not involved," said Ono. His voice came out gravelly and low. He was so close he could feel the air move when Tachibana breathed. He smelled good.
"What makes you think I'm not?" said Tachibana.
He removed Ono's hand quite gently.
"That's enough touchy-feely for the day," he said. "Anyway, start talking to Chikage again, will you? If he notices, it's my shoulder he'll be crying on."
He looked at Ono expectantly.
"Ah," said Ono. Tachibana seemed satisfied.
"The tartelette aux noix," he said. "Tell Eiji."
"I'm going to go serve some customers," said Tachibana. "But you should know when I go home I'm going to swig beer and watch a sports channel. And we are never talking about this again."
He left the room. Ono sat down.
He closed his eyes and felt the wind whistling past his ears.
If you pretend the ground doesn't exist ...
"Right," said Ono, opening his eyes. "You have the sugar? That was fast. Thank you. The mille-feuilles are done; try one. I'm thinking of making a variant, with figs. What do you think?"
You probably fall anyway. Not everyone can fly. But he treasured his freedom, didn't he -- paraded it, even -- and after all. The point of freedom was that it meant you didn't have to play it safe.