Part 4: House of Sweets ~un petit nid~ (4)
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.
With the morning rush settled down, Chise went on to prepare the pastries for the afternoon. Kase boiled natsumikan oranges, following the directions of a recipe written down for him. The sweet and sour aroma spread throughout the kitchen. Agi came over while he stirred the sparkling golden-colored fruit.
“You’re pretty good with your hands. Have you worked at a restaurant before?”
“No, it’s just because I’ve lived alone for so long.”
“Hnnn. I think I can leave you in charge of the staff meals.”
“Yeah, lunch for everyone here. Just throw something together with whatever you find in the fridge. Oh, just to let you know, I hate vegetables. And I really, really hate shishito peppers. Whatever you do, don’t put those in.”
Aren’t you an adult?
Kase nodded with a blank expression on his face.
Once the noon rush was over for the bakery, it was already 2 pm. Kase looked inside the refrigerator and decided to throw together some yakisoba from the vegetables and Chinese noodles that he saw. It would probably be fine with some soup to go with it. As Kase chopped the vegetables, a small voice announced from the back door, “I’m home.” It was Rio.
Chise called out, “Welcome back, Rio. Did you have fun today?”
“Yeah, I was only called stupid four times today.” Rio hugged Chise’s waist playfully as she worked.
Agi peeked his head in from the front. “Did you give them a good smack when they said it?”
“No,” Rio said, shaking his head. “I won’t hit them. Because I really am stupid.”
Agi burst out laughing, and Chise gave a wry smile and sighed, “Honestly…”
Rio also went up to Kase.
“Uncl—… Oh, um, Hiro— Hiro…ki-kun? I’m home.”
He almost called him ‘Uncle’ again. And he even got his name wrong. Kase should probably say Welcome back here, but wouldn’t it mean dismissing the mistake if he were to say that first? Rio smiled up at Kase as he gripped the straps of his backpack. As the tense silence stretched on, Agi intervened between them again with an incredulous sigh.
“Hiroaki, when someone says ‘I’m home’ to you, you say ‘Welcome back.’ And Rio, it’s not Hiroki. It’s Hiroaki. Well, it’s pretty hard to say, so let’s just go with Hiro-kun. It’s fine.”
It wasn’t fine. However, before Kase could protest, Rio exclaimed, “Okay,” and nodded.
“Hiro-kun, I’m home.”
With the child beaming at him, Kase turned his eyes away and reluctantly said, “Welcome back.”
“Hiro-kun, what are you making?”
Rio peered over at the cabbage that Kase was chopping.
“Oh, I love yakisoba~ I want to eat some too. I already ate lunch at school, but I’ll eat it as a snack.”
Kase silently pulled out another packet of noodles from the refrigerator.
“Oh, and I’d like mine with a fried egg on top.”
He silently pulled out an egg for Rio. When he finished all the preparations, Kase started cooking. First he made the soup, and then he stir-fried the vegetables and noodles separately before he combined them together and seasoned everything. Rio stood next to Kase the entire time, his eyes shining in anticipation for the food. Kase served up the finished yakisoba onto plates, and Rio spoke up, “Hiro-kun, this is mine,” and passed him a plastic airplane-shaped dish. Apparently it was Rio’s personal dish. Kase portioned out some yakisoba onto the dish, used a separate frying pan to fry an egg, and dropped it on top of the noodles.
“Wow, this looks good,” Agi commented.
As Kase lined up the plates on the worktable, Agi and Chise brought over four chairs with them.
“It really does. I’m happy that there’s soup too.”
“Mommy. Hiro-kun made some for me too. With a fried egg.”
“So he did. Kase-kun, thank you for all the trouble.”
Kase acknowledged the thanks with just his eyes, and Agi tutted at him.
“Can you do something about that style where you try to talk as little as possible?”
Everyone sat down as they chatted, saying “Thanks for the food.” The moment they took a bite of the noodles, the mood in the room changed. Rio was the one who cried out and broke the strange silence.
Rio frantically reached for his cup of water.
Spicy? What was spicy? He hadn’t used any spices though because he was cooking for a child. Kase looked around the table with just his eyes to see how everyone else was. Chise had an indescribable expression on her face as she chewed her first bite. Agi quickly swallowed his own bite and frowned at Kase.
“Hey, make sure you taste the food when you cook. You got the amount of salt completely wrong.”
It couldn’t be. He had tasted it beforehand. Kase rushed to try a bite. He chewed it and swallowed it. There was nothing wrong with the food, so he took another bite. He chewed it more carefully this time. He had no idea what was wrong. It tasted normal.
Agi and Chise stared blankly at Kase as he tried to figure out what was wrong.
“Kase-kun, it doesn’t taste salty to you?”
“Do you have a cold or something?”
He felt fine. Kase shook his head no. However, he felt like he was being stared at like an alien, and he grew uncomfortable. He had lived alone for a long time, and he was a pretty decent cook. He rarely went out to eat, but when he sometimes bought lunch boxes at the office, a lot of times he did think that they were under-seasoned.
When was the last time he went out to eat? Probably the other day at the cafeteria of the office where he used to work. The food there was cheap and terrible. Everything tasted bland no matter what he ordered— Which reminded him, the doughnut that he received the other day didn’t taste sweet at all. Was it because there was something wrong with his taste buds? Was it just that he had never noticed it until now? It couldn’t be. But he was rapidly losing confidence in himself.
“Well, whatever, this is just a small setback. It’s not like we’ll die from little too much salt.” Agi rolled up his sleeves and reached for his chopsticks.
“Yeah. Hiro-kun, if you turn this into ramen, it tastes good.” Rio was slurping his noodles, having poured hot water into his dish.
“Rio, don’t do that. That’s such a weird combination.” Agi grimaced at the child.
Chise tried a bite from Rio’s dish and gave a surprised look. “Oh, but it does taste pretty good. Just think of it as yakisoba with broth.”
“Broth…? You gotta be kidding me.”
“It’s supposed to be a popular local dish in Aomori somewhere. Kind of like a ramen version of yakisoba.”
“I’ll pass. I’d rather have it salty.”
The other three at the table switched up the mood and continued eating. Kase stared down at his plate with disappointment, and Rio looked over at him. Noodles hung out of his mouth as he slurped them, splashing broth around.
“Hiro-kun, you really can’t taste how salty it is?”
Children held nothing back at all. Kase frowned in discomfort, but Rio continued on.
“If you can’t taste things, then it’s nice that you can eat carrots and bell peppers.”
Kase was taken by surprise, and Agi burst into laughter.
“Well, yeah, that’s true. If I couldn’t taste anything, I could eat shishito peppers too.”
“On the other hand, you wouldn’t be able to taste alcohol or sushi.”
At Chise’s teasing, Agi shook his head. “Ugh, well, I can’t have that.”
“Oh, right, I remember seeing something about it on the news before. Apparently cases of people experiencing taste disorders due to stress or fatigue are on the rise. They called it a modern disease, but I wonder if you’re experiencing the same thing, Kase-kun?”
Kase didn’t like the sound of where the conversation was heading. Next he would probably be asked as part of some small talk if he had any problems that he was facing. Kase sourly plunged his chopsticks into his yakisoba, thinking that it was none of her business when Agi spoke up.
“I mean, there’s no one who doesn’t feel any stress nowadays.” He easily diverted the topic elsewhere. “I’m generally exhausted all the time. When I went shopping the other day, I sat in one of those massage chairs that were on display, and I basically went to heaven. I almost bought one without thinking. Man, I was tempted.”
“Hmm, but isn’t that a bit different?”
“It’s all the same, it’s all the same. Apparently even elementary school kids have stresses and worries now. Right, Rio?”
Rio nodded earnestly.
“Yeah, I have worries too,” he said to Kase. “No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get more than 17 points on my tests. And I run slow. And when I go to school, I don’t like it when other kids call me ‘pill bug’ instead of ‘Rio.’”
Pill bug? Was this kid being bullied at school?
“Yeah, it’s a tough world as a kid. The brats are still half animals, and they can do some pretty cruel things,” Agi grumbled with a sigh. He turned and leaned over towards Rio.
“Rio, I’ll teach you how to fight next time. There are idiots out there who don’t know when enough is enough, so if you feel like you might die if they keep hurting you, then don’t hesitate to throw a fist at them.”
Rio widened his eyes in surprise. “Will I get killed?”
“Your body can be killed, yeah, but you can feel like you’re getting killed here too.” Agi slapped his chest a few times. “The wounds on your body can heal, but the wounds over here can last forever depending on what happens. That’s why if you think that you can’t take it anymore, you need to fight back with all you’ve got.”
Rio didn’t look like he understood, but he still nodded back at Agi. “Okay, I understand. If I’m killed, I’ll fight back.”
“No, no, that would be too late. Beat them up before you get killed.”
“Um, okay?” Rio answered, slurping at his yakisoba in broth. He probably understood nothing.
“This kid is really too mellow and laid back. I can’t believe he has Yuzuru’s blood.”
“Yuzuru sure did have a short temper. But he was pretty soft when it came to old people.”
“He was, he was. If he spotted high school kids sitting in the reserved seats for senior citizens, he’d immediately go and start a fight with them. He’d growl, ‘Stand up, you bastards,’ kick their asses, and when the train arrived at the station, he’d be hauled off to the station master’s office.”
Agi and Chise were happily talking about someone named Yuzuru. He was probably Rio’s dead father. Kase was relieved that the conversation had steered away from him. Like Agi had said, everyone had stress nowadays, but Kase found it unpleasant to be probed about it at a superficial level as an extension of small talk.
After their meal, Kase was washing the dishes when he felt around his mouth with his tongue. Everyone had thought that the yakisoba tasted salty, but to Kase, it had tasted normal, and he found it hard to suddenly accept that there was something wrong with his sense of taste. There had to be a mistake somewhere. However, his anxiety left behind a trail.
Kase turned around, and Agi frowned at him.
“What’s wrong? You don’t look so good. What, you have anemia with that huge body of yours?”
A large hand reached out to try to touch Kase’s cheek. Kase retreated in reflex, and Agi gave a wry smile as he pulled his hand back.
“Hey, about tomorrow.”
Kase thought, Oh, I’m fired. He was hired as a kitchen assistant after all. It was one thing to not have any experience, but his taste buds were screwed up too? Agi probably thought that he was useless now.
“So starting tomorrow, when you’re seasoning the food, come get either me or Chise to help you.”
“And you saw how we’re running low on ingredients, right? If you get some time later, go out and buy some meat and vegetables for the fridge. Hmm? You look kind of bothered. Is there something wrong?”
“I thought you… were going to fire me.”
“Because of my screwed up taste buds, and I’m supposed to be a kitchen assistant. I’d be useless to you.”
Agi gave him a mystified look.
“Why would that be? Chise has the recipes of our items with all the grams for everything; you just have to follow the directions. It’s work that anyone can do as long as you can read Japanese. Anyway, you look like a thug, but you’re pretty sensitive, huh? Instead of worrying about stupid things, just get down to work.”
Agi pressed his thumb to Kase’s forehead and ground it around back and forth. Kase brushed his hand away, but Agi thought it was funny and kept trying to tease him. Agi’s hand would reach for him, and Kase would bat it away. After it repeated itself a number of times, Chise raised her voice at them.
“Hey, you two, don’t horse around in the kitchen. You’ll get flour in the air.”
Agi and Kase skidded to halt like they were children scolded by their mother.
“Good grief.” She placed her hands on her hips and faced Kase.
He was startled, but Chise smiled.
“You’re doing fine, so don’t worry. This turned out just like I wanted.”
Chise held up a container. Inside was the natsumikan marmalade that Kase had made.
Rio looked over at Kase from the corner of the kitchen where he was drawing pictures. “Yeah, and the ramen was tasty too.”
“Rio, that wasn’t ramen, that was yakisoba… well, it started out that way.”
Agi snickered at Chise, having lost her conviction in the middle of her words. Chise laughed too, infected by the laughter, and Rio grinned at everyone, not understanding what was wrong with his statement. Kase didn’t know how to react to their behavior towards him and cast his eyes down.
He wasn’t comfortable somehow. But it wasn’t a bad feeling either.
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.