Tantalize, by kishmet. Atobe/Ryoma, PG-13, 1,900 words.
Tantalize [ˈtæntəlaɪz] -verb (used with object), to torment with, or as if with, the sight of something desired but out of reach; tease by arousing expectations that are repeatedly disappointed.
"You must ask for the new chef," Oshitari tells him, adding, "His food is divine."
Atobe doesn't follow trends as religiously as Oshitari does; he doesn't need to pursue idle amusement and gossip columns in order to fill days that would otherwise be long and listless. But the lure of haute cuisine has always been his weakness, and he calls to make a reservation, hanging up the phone while the maitre'd scurries to cancel someone else in order to place a rich corporate heir who will draw the paparazzi and the free publicity it brings to the establishment.
He's been to the restaurant before, but it's undergone renovations since his last visit. The cameras flash at him from across the artificial ponds that surround the door, more effective than guards in protecting elite patrons from all but the most enterprising reporters. He doesn't bother flashing even a haughty look of disdain back at them, reserving judgment until after the meal, when he will either smirk or sneer depending on how well this new chef pleases him. They hurry him to a table immediately, past the waiting middle class couples dressed up in their once-a-month finery. Some will try complaining to the staff until their better-informed neighbors tell them who he is, and some will leave in righteous indignation, husbands hurrying after their wives, trying to pacify them so they can have their romantic evening after all.
Atobe doesn't care either way, except for the mildly entertaining and familiar thought that he can cause such a stir simply by walking through a room. He is ushered by the manager to a spacious booth with curtains that can be pulled around for privacy, told that "The chef will be out momentarily for your private tasting session."
There are two candles burning on the table, the flicker of flame mingling with the dim atmospheric lighting from above. The candle holders are authentic antique silver, the table solid mahogany, the napkins pure white, starched linen, folded into elegant fleur-de-lys. Atobe toys with one of them, undoing it and shaping it into a swan instead, remembering his art classes full of calligraphy and flower arrangement and origami.
The manager returns, bowing low to him and presenting the chef with his cart full of dishes and utensils and ingredients. The man utters the name Echizen Ryoma and then something about an American institute of cuisine, and then Atobe stops listening because he has caught sight of the chef. Echizen Ryoma is a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, garbed not in a ridiculous white outfit and hat but in a sleek, tailored black suit with gold accents. His dark hair is tied back in a neat ponytail, his white apron in stark and fashionable contrast to the rest of his attire. "Pleased to make your acquaintance," says Atobe, holding out his hand and meaning the greeting with more sincerity than he's felt in a lifetime of business introductions and negotiations.
Echizen Ryoma regards him coolly for a moment before accepting the handshake. "Charmed, I'm sure," he says, and slips his fingers from Atobe's grasp in a brief slide of skin against skin that kindles a low fire of lust in the base of Atobe's stomach.
The manager bows again, closes the curtains and leaves them, the phrase private tasting session sending a thrill through Atobe as it takes on a new meaning in his mind. What they're doing feels suddenly clandestine and exciting as Atobe watches Echizen arranging plates and jars of spices with long, nimble fingers. "This is the draw, then," Atobe says, nodding to the cart. "This is how you bring in new customers."
Echizen glances up, his hands continuing to move with the ease of someone with many more years' practice in his field than he can possibly have by now. "By the time you're done eating," says Echizen, "you won't even remember this."
Atobe doubts the veracity of this claim, musing that perhaps all previous patrons have been blind or asexual, unlikely as this assumption may be, particularly in Oshitari's case.
"Seasonings first," says Echizen, sprinkling a pinch of each into an attractive ring in all shades of green and brown, circling the edge of a small bread plate.
"Isn't that a little counterintuitive?" Atobe asks, disguising his keen interest with boredom and disdain beyond even his usual.
"You burn your toast," Echizen observes, doubly irritating because he's correct, Atobe does burn his toast on those rare occasions when he deigns to enter his own kitchen. "We'll be trusting my judgment. Try this." He scoops a tiny amount of something dark green onto the very end of a miniature spoon, and pulls it sharply back when Atobe leans closer. "Sniff, don't taste."
Atobe is accustomed to doling out orders, not following them, but he is intrigued enough that he obeys, taking the time to inhale deeply, eyes flicking up to catch Echizen's in a momentary heated gaze. "Not bad," he says.
"Not right," Echizen says, and plucks another spoon from the cart. "Now this." His hand lingers close for a second or two beyond the point of necessity, long enough for Atobe to catch the scent of the herb and also the faint aroma of sandalwood, lilac, and something else he cannot identify.
"Better," Atobe murmurs, and the corner of Echizen's mouth turns up into the smile of a predator on the hunt. The flare of desire is stronger this time, now that they are both aware of the attraction, a secret to share between them.
"Wrong," says Echizen, his impudence inexplicably captivating, the uncertainty whether he is serious or not even more so. "You wouldn't know better if it slapped you in the face. This one." The next is a blend of pale green and tan, and when Atobe samples it as he has done the others, Echizen's fingers brush his lips as the spoon is drawn away. An electric jolt of need courses through Atobe, his palms and mouth abruptly dry.
"Nothing to say this time?" Echizen asks, tracing his fingers idly through the next spice on the list he seems to carry in his mind. Atobe shakes his head slowly, and Echizen nods his satisfaction. "Another," he says, this time failing to take a spoon from the cart as he raises the finger coated in green flecks to his own lips, sliding it into his mouth as though he is evaluating his own wares. His tongue flicks out, cleaning as thoroughly as a feline washing its tail.
Atobe is entranced, more aroused than he's ever been by the models and actresses who flock to surround him at the company's annual charity banquet, more than he's been by the young men who corner him and kiss him desperately when he makes an obligatory appearance at one of Oshitari's outrageous parties.
Echizen draws the finger out of his mouth and plucks a moist towelette from his breast pocket, the antiseptic artificial lemon scent in sharp contrast to the fragrance of Echizen and his rosemary, thyme, coriander. "Try this," he says, businesslike as he picks up the bottle of what he's just sampled, shaking a little onto the end of of a new spoon. Atobe feels an irrational surge of disappointment that he is not allowed to share the what Echizen has touched and tasted.
It is the temptation of the forbidden that drives him to catch Echizen's wrist, taking the spoon with his other hand so that he can dip his head and take the tip of Echizen's index finger into his mouth, sucking lightly to steal what flavor he can from beneath the acidic taste of soap and lemon. "Much better," he murmurs, looking into light eyes that meet his own, dark and hazed as they are with lust.
"Incompetent," says Echizen, pulling his hand away, retaining an outward composure that would cause Atobe to burn with envy if he hadn't already been consumed by something sweeter. "You don't know food."
Atobe sets the spoon down beside his napkin swan without spilling a single flake of the spice on the cream-colored tablecloth. "I know what I want," he replies calmly.
"No," says Echizen, taking a small, immaculately white porcelain bowl from the lower shelf of the cart, and a few more bottles filled with liquids and puree that shifts sluggishly within the glass containers. "But I know what you want." He begins pouring these ingredients and mixing them together. Atobe feels he's being chastised for his impertinence, though he can't bring himself to regret what he's done.
Echizen works efficiently, the red mixture deepening to the shade of venous blood with the addition of a sauce the color of coffee with one cream. "Chocolate," he says, when Atobe leans over to determine what it might be without benefit of any helpful label on the bottle.
Atobe makes no more uninvited overtures, studying Echizen's every move with a fascination that is only partly sexual. Echizen performs his task with all the flair of a violin virtuoso with his instrument, his focus a tangible thing in the air between them. At the end, he sprinkles a measure of the dark green spice on top, and graces Atobe with a long look. "You want to try this."
"Mm," says Atobe, wetting his lips with the tip of his tongue. "Yes."
Echizen deliberately dips his finger into the bowl, running it slowly through the sauce until his fingertip is coated in it. He extends this hand to Atobe, touching Atobe's lips. Atobe doesn't dare part them for fear of having this unanticipated reward revoked, and Echizen smiles, parting them for him by slipping his finger through. Now Atobe opens his mouth obediently, and Echizen strokes his tongue, letting him sample the different portions of the sauce with the different groups of taste buds that will each perceive one element more strongly.
Atobe controls his breathing so that it's deep and even, but his heart flutters in his chest like a bird against the bars of its cage. Echizen lets him curl his tongue gently around the finger, and it seems an age before Echizen extracts his hand once more. "What is that?" Atobe asks, voice husky as he savors the chocolate, the sandalwood, the skin.
"An aphrodisiac," Echizen tells him, bringing the hand to his mouth to slide his own tongue over the side of his finger. He closes his eyes and lets out a sound halfway between a hum and a sigh, and the heat centered at the juncture between Atobe's legs rises, threatening to consume him.
"Oh?'' Atobe inquires, the only piece of coherency he is able to muster.
"For stamina." Echizen opens his eyes and smiles sweetly. "You look like you'll need it."
The slight takes a moment to reach Atobe's conscious mind, and by then Echizen has said something about the manager, about the drink menu, about how long it will take him to prepare Atobe's main course. Echizen departs with his cart, disappearing through the curtains that have been parted, reminding him that the rest of the world still exists. Indignation and furious lust wage war in Atobe's psyche, and with an effort of will he smooths his expression into a mask of insouciance before the manager reaches the table.
Atobe's rage and frustration simmer for another half an hour, until the manager delivers his entrée and a tiny slip of paper, which he tucks beneath the beak of Atobe's cloth swan with a deep bow. When Atobe unfolds it, he finds note written in black calligraphy ink, the letters slanted and graceful. He reads it, and a smile spreads over his features at the promise it contains.
I'll be back for dessert. -E.R.