Chapter Five: Secret Ingredient

“Yuuji, garnish the lasagna and take it to the head chef’s counter,” said Ageha.

“Yes, chef!” said a slim young man. He was wearing the same white uniform as Ageha.

Yuuji quickly topped the aromatic layers of meat, bechamel, and cheese with microgreens. The pasta had been baked in a square, single-portion dish. Sapore served its lasagna in the baking dish to keep it warm. Forgetting how hot the dish was, Yuuji carelessly tried to lift it without a potholder.

“Ow!”

Yuuji dropped the lasagna, but Ageha caught it and placed it back on the counter.

“Be careful,” said Ageha.

“I am so sorry!” Yuuji immediately bowed in apology. His short black hair whipped up for a second due to the speed of his movement.

“It’s alright. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Yuuji lifted his head, his face filled with worry, and asked, “Are you okay, chef?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you get burned by the dish?”

Ageha nonchalantly looked at his fingers. “No, I’m fine. My fingers are used to heat.”

Yuuji’s face filled with admiration. He bowed again. “Thank you.”

Seeing the sincere displays of regret, respect, and gratitude in quick succession, Ageha wanted to smile but opted to keep the stern expression of a superior.

“It’s no big deal. You don’t have to keep bowing to me. I’d rather you spend that time working,” said Ageha.

Yuuji straightened his posture and said, “Yes, chef!” A determined look surfaced on his slightly feminine face. He lifted the lasagna using a potholder and headed for the chef’s counter.

He’s a bit rough around the edges, but with that personality, he’s gonna grow.

Yuuji was one of the new chefs that had been hired to fill in for Matsunaga, the secondo chef who unwillingly retired thanks to Ageha. The kitchen hierarchy had been restructured, and Ageha had been promoted to sous chef.

While Ageha continued cooking, he glanced at the retreating figure of the inexperienced chef. He had only known Yuuji for a few weeks but had learned quite a bit about him because he wore his heart on his sleeve. Yuuji’s defining features were his sincerity and hardworking nature. He was average in all other aspects.

Kirishima inspected the lasagna and then beckoned Rin to serve it to the customer. Rin placed the dish on her tray using a small black towel for insulation. Before she walked into the sala, she turned to Yuuji.

“Don’t worry about it. Ageha’s really appreciative of your hard work. He isn’t gonna mind such a small mistake,” said Rin.

Yuuji looked touched from the show of concern. “Rin…” He smiled with renewed vigor and said, “Thank you. I’ll try harder!”

Rin made a spectacular smile and nodded. Yuuji faintly flushed from the sight. Not noticing this, she gracefully turned and strode into the sala.

A few hours later, Ageha took a break and entered the staff room. He found Rin sitting in a chair fiddling with her mobile terminal.

“Hey,” said Ageha.

Rin looked up and smiled. “What’s up?” She pocketed her terminal.

“Thanks for the follow up with Yuuji earlier.”

“Nah, I just said what I felt. Yuuji is a nice guy.”

“I know. It’s just that I can be a little too straight when speaking to my subordinates.”

“That can’t be helped. You take your work very seriously.”

“He does, too. A little too serious, maybe.” He chuckled.

Ageha took a seat on one of the chairs. He cracked his neck by tilting in from side to side.

“Tired?” asked Rin.

“From stress. You?”

“Full of energy! I’ve been sleeping like a log thanks to my new body pillow.” Rin made a mischievous smile.

Ageha found it odd but decided to ignore it. Rin stood up from her seat and approached Ageha from behind. Before he could react, Rin had already grabbed onto his shoulders with her fingers.

“What are you doing!?” asked Ageha in surprise.

“Giving you a massage. Nothing beats a shoulder rub when you’re stressed.”

“Wait-”

“Eh?”

Ageha’s attempt to stop her had been too late. She had already squeezed on his shoulder with all her strength. The problem was that his flesh had not budged a millimeter.

“What is this?” asked the confused Rin.

Ageha closed his eyes and sighed deeply. He tried to come up with a plausible excuse but could not find one.

“…Are these cybernetic?”

He decided to answer honestly. He owed Rin far too much to blatantly lie to her at this point.

“Yes.”

“So Kai was telling the truth…”

Kai?

Ageha stood up, causing Rin to release her hold of his shoulders, and turned to her.

“What did she tell you?” His expression lacked its usual softness.

Rin trembled from Ageha’s reaction and took a step back. Seeing this, Ageha felt a twinge of guilt. He made a regretful smile.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No, it’s okay.” Rin fixed her posture. “About that, Kai told me about her identity and that you were her bodyguard. I wouldn’t have believed her normally, but…” She fidgeted. “I saw you on Mount Takao while I was hiking some time ago…”

Rin was on Mount Takao that day?

What an absurd coincidence.

Ageha lamented his typical stroke of bad luck. He wanted to click his tongue but resisted. He closed his eyes and pressed on his temples. “Why couldn’t she keep her mouth shut.”

“No, it’s not Kai’s fault! I… wanted to know.”

“I’m sorry I dragged you into this.” Ageha dipped his head.

“You had no choice, right? I’m fine with it.”

Ageha knew how Rin felt about him, but he did not realize how deeply until now. He was being horribly unfair to her by taking advantage of those feelings. Guilt raged in his heart.

“I’m sorry for lying to you all this time.”

“I hid stuff from you too, so we’re square.”

“Those don’t measure up-”

“It does to me, and that’s what matters right?” asked Rin with a brilliant smile.

Ageha could not smile in return. He could not let go of his guilt despite, or rather precisely because of, Rin’s kindness and mercy. His eyes unconsciously avoided Rin’s. Rin’s smile gradually became more awkward because of Ageha’s odd demeanor.

A knock from the door disturbed their impasse.

“Excuse me,” said Yuuji as he entered the staff room. He immediately noticed the odd atmosphere. “Were you in the middle of something?”

“No, we were just chatting,” said Ageha.

It was a blatant lie, obvious from Ageha’s and Rin’s awkward expressions. Such an atmosphere did not fit a friendly chat.

“Chef Kirishima said he needs Shikimi-san in the kitchen,” said Yuuji.

Yuuji appeared to have somewhat understood the situation but did not pursue the matter.

“How many times have I told you to call me Ageha?” he asked with a smile.

“That would not do! You are my senior and superior. It is only proper.”

Yuuji’s response caused an image of a certain stickler for formalities to flash in Ageha’s mind.

At least it’s not “Ageha-sama.”

“I give up.” He shrugged as he walked towards the door. He looked back at Rin and said, “See you later.”

She winced after seeing his face. Ageha did not let that faze him and left the room.

What kind of face was I making?

 

***

 

“Don’t you have to go back, too?” asked Rin. She sat down after Ageha had closed the door behind him.

“I was actually on my way here to take my break when Chef Kirishima called out to me. Would you like me to leave?” Yuuji looked completely serious.

“No, that’s not what I meant! I just- I thought you came here to fetch Ageha.”

“I’m sorry. I assumed you wanted to be alone.” He made an apologetic expression.

I can’t believe he’s the same age as Ageha.

Rin thought that if it were Ageha who saw her panic just now, he would have teased her or, at the very least, been amused. Receiving an apology was not what she expected, especially from someone older than her.

They’re completely different types.

“I should be the one apologizing,” she said.

“No, you did nothing wrong,” said Yuuji with a smile.

Rin did not use polite speech when speaking to Yuuji because he had insisted that seniority in the workplace overrides seniority in terms of age. She was thankful because she preferred to speak casually in general.

“Did something happen?” he asked as he took a seat.

“Was it that obvious?” She smiled, but her slightly furrowed brows showed her regret.

“I wouldn’t say obvious… You two usually get along so well, so something like this stands out. Did you have a fight?”

“No, not at all. Don’t worry about it. Ageha was just stressing over the strangest things.”

“Really? He always looks relaxed and in control to me.”

“Well, yeah. He loves to make fun of me when I trip up or panic.”

“He doesn’t do that to me at all, though. Maybe he doesn’t like me?” Yuuji’s expression darkened.

“No way. We were just talking about you earlier. All good things, trust me. He probably just doesn’t want to muddle the line between friend and subordinate.” Rin slightly tilted her head upward and leaned on the backrest. “That guy can be pretty strict when it comes to work. If you think he’s already hard on you, you should know he’s much harder on himself. He wouldn’t be a sous chef at his age otherwise.”

“I see. He really is amazing.”

“And he knows it, too. His bragging takes some getting used to.”

“I don’t see that as bragging. I think Shikimi-san is just being honest. Personally, I would find it more uncomfortable if someone like him acted all humble. Wouldn’t it seem fake?”

“You watch him pretty closely, huh?”

“Of course. I want to learn as much as I can from him.” Yuuji smiled.

“Be careful about idolizing that guy. His weird personality might rub off on you.”

“I could use some of his confidence.”

“No, you’re fine the way you are. Ageha said so, too.”

Yuuji sighed. “What am I doing? I intended to comfort you but got consoled instead.”

“It’s really no big deal. Ageha… just felt distant for a second.”

“Have you told him that you like him yet?”

“No, I haven’t- Wait, what!? I don’t… it, it’s not like I like him or anything!?” Her denial was a pitch higher than normal.

“You don’t have to keep it a secret from me. I gave up on pursuing you because I realized how much you liked him. I have no chance,” he said with a straight face, but his cheeks were glowing red.

Rin’s face grew hot from the unexpected confession.

Why did he have to be similar to Ageha in the worst way!?

Rin corrected herself. They were different. Yuuji’s honesty did not have any ulterior motive. Ageha mischievously sought the reactions his opinions would elicit.

“I…” Rin fidgeted in embarrassment.

“You don’t have to say anything. Like I said, I’ve given up. …I decided to support you and Shikimi-san. Who wouldn’t after seeing how you two act around each other?” Yuuji’s face grew even redder. He looked like he had been squeezing his words out.

Don’t confess so suddenly if you’re gonna get all embarrassed about it!!!

A certain word in Yuuji’s response caught Rin’s attention.

“‘You two?’” she asked.

“Yes. I’m pretty sure he also likes you.” A small amount of melancholy was discernible from his smile.

Rin felt like smoke was coming out of her ears. “…Really?”

“It’s just my opinion, though.”

Even though she had complained inwardly about Yuuji’s straightforwardness, she actually found it refreshing. She felt that Yuuji was someone she could easily confide in because he had no other side.

“I see. Thank you,” said Rin with a beam.

“For what?”

“For comforting me. Isn’t that what you’re here for?”

“It looks like I wasn’t the one influenced by Ageha’s personality.”

“I- I didn’t mean it like that! I know that you were here to take a break, not for me especially-”

“I’m just kidding,” said Yuuji with a grin.

Rin sighed and slumped her shoulders. “It looks like both of us have been contaminated by that jerk.”

Their laughter filled the staff room.

 

***

 

“Hey,” said Ageha.

Rin jumped away and screamed. She turned around and saw Ageha’s figure. “You scared the hell out of me!!!”

Ageha had been waiting for Rin outside the service door of Sapore. He felt that they needed to discuss the current situation in more detail, but due to the incident earlier, he had found it too difficult to talk to her inside the restaurant.

“I’m sorry.” His face contorted in regret. “I didn’t mean to surprise you.”

“Why were you standing there? I thought you were a pervert or something.”

“No special reason. I was just leaning on the wall while waiting.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Half an hour or so.”

“Are you crazy? It’s freezing cold out here.”

“I know.”

Their breaths were misty white. The temperature was much lower than what Ageha preferred, but speaking with Rin took priority.

Rin was dressed in a white winter coat. A long purple scarf was wrapped around her neck with her pony tail resting on it. Her cheeks slowly turned pink from the cold as she lightly rubbed them with her gloved hands.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“We could’ve talked inside.”

“It’s something that needs privacy.”

“…I see.”

Rin seemed to have grasped what Ageha wanted to talk about. However, there was apparently something else that bothered her.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not Ageha.”

“…Have you gone nuts?”

“No, you have.” Rin quickly raised her hand and launched a chop towards Ageha’s forehead. She fully stretched her arm to reach it due to their height difference.

Ageha could have easily dodged the blow but decided to let it hit. “Ow! What are you doing!?”

“That’s my line. An elbow isn’t enough this time. Have you looked in the mirror?” Her eyebrows were pressed together, and her blazing glare was upon him.

“No.”

“What’s with that face you’ve been making all day? You look like an abandoned puppy. It’s cute but not you!”

Did she just call me cute?

He felt complicated about the praise, but that thought was quickly erased by a different realization. Rin was furious. Not feeling embarrassed about saying something like that indicated how angry she was.

“Sorry.” He made a pained expression. His guilt towards Rin kept dragging him back to this unusual state.

“That!” She pointed a finger at his face. “That isn’t like you! Isn’t this where you smile like an arrogant jerk and say, ‘You’re the one who should look in the mirror. Your nostrils are flaring,’ or something!?”

An arrogant jerk..?

Rin was breathing heavily after her outburst. Ageha remained silent.

“I’m doing this because I want to, not because you dragged me into it,” she said as she emotionally gesticulated with her hands. “Stop feeling guilty, because it’s pissing me off! If you really want to make it up to me, act like you usually do!”

Rin looked like she was pleading with Ageha despite her use of imperatives. Her face was on the verge of tears. Ageha finally realized what had gotten Rin so angry.

She felt anxious after seeing me like this.

Rin’s concern for Ageha was, of course, real. However, the root of her anger was fear. Ageha was not sure if it was fear of him distancing himself from her, fear of the danger she was in, or fear of the peril Ageha had to face, but he was certain of her anxiety.

She’s right. The best way to make it up to her would be…

Ageha laughed.

“Eh?”

“I can’t believe you fell for that! Did you actually think I was waiting here for half an hour? I only went outside after seeing you leave the dressing room,” he said.

Rin looked confused at first but then appeared to have figured out what Ageha was doing. She probably understood that this was an act, but it was necessary for them to return to normal.

“Why you! I was seriously worried over here!”

Rin tried to whack Ageha on the head again, but he nimbly dodged all her blows.

“It was just a joke! And stop wasting your time. You’ll never hit me anyway.” He continued to laugh while evading Rin’s hands.

“I got you several times before!”

“That’s because I let you hit me. Do you really think an ARMS-enhanced bodyguard would get hit by a cameriera? Even elite mercenaries don’t stand a chance against me.”

Ageha had intentionally trivialized his dark secrets. Rin was now a part of his other world because she had willingly stepped into it. He had also casually declared his strength to alleviate her anxiety. She should know by now that he never boasted without basis.

Rin growled but eventually gave up after realizing the futility of her actions. She smiled at him, her face looking refreshed, and asked, “So, where to?”

“There’s this new ramen place that I’ve been wanting to try. It probably can’t hold a candle to my tonkotsu, but it’s nice to eat someone else’s cooking from time to time.”

“Your treat?”

“No way.”

“…I kinda wish you kept a little of that meekness.”

“Never had any in the first place.”

Leisurely heading to their destination, the two of them walked side by side as always.

 

 

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