by Bronze Tigress

Neapolitain

In a bright and cheerful kitchen, an equally bright and cheerful young man is sitting at the table checking over a shopping list to fill on his way home from work that evening. Hearing quiet footsteps padding behind him towards the counter, he calls over his shoulder to the person who is just reaching for the coffee pot."Hey, hon! Didn't expect to see you up before I left; you got in awfully late last night. Got the day off, right?"

"The bed was cold..." As if that explained everything - and perhaps it did. "And only this morning. We couldn't even start moving in until after the cutoff time, but the debriefing is this afternoon. I am glad that assignment is done - and even more so that Une doesn't want the paperwork until first thing on Tuesday."

"Well, I'm glad you woke up before I had to go; you know I love to see your smiling face in the mornings!" The tone is lightly teasing, but both know the truth behind the words.

The only audible answer is the soft click of the spoon on the tray beside the stove. A covert glance shows him the slight figure that is leaning back against the counter, ankles crossed, both hands wrapped around the mug. Dark eyes are closed in the small blissful smile that follows the first sip of a perfect cup of coffee. The young man smiles briefly himself before asking, "Anything else not on the shopping list that we need for this weekend besides whipping cream?"

That earns him a surprised, if still somewhat sleepy, blink. "Whipping cream?"

"Yeah. Blame Blondie. He brought home strawberries last night. Strawberries! Can you believe it? Where do you get strawberries in February?"

"I can't imagine where he found them at this time of year, although if anyone could, I suppose it would be him." The voice is curious now, and the nearly black eyes hold the same expression.

"Too true!", the cheerful light baritone voice continues. "I mean, it's not exactly as if it were still snowing out, but that ice storm last week doesn't exactly qualify as strawberry-growing weather."

"They do know how to import produce here, you know, although that means they were probably far too expensive. And don't remind me. You are not the one who got stuck with cleaning up the mess that storm left behind here."

"Sorry, hon." His tone is contrite, now, and he turns a rueful smile on his partner. "Didn't mean to. And I still think it was worse having to handle all those delegates panicking when the lights blew! Ack! Gotta run, or Une'll skin me; I'm supposed to take those new recruits down to the range this morning and you know how she is if the instructor isn't there half an hour early to check things!"

With that, he grabs his sidearm, lunch, coat, kiss, and keys before whirling out the door. His bemused partner moves to the table to sit, drink some more of the lightly vanilla flavoured coffee, read the paper, and gradually come to full wakefulness.

+

It isn't until he is heading to the shower nearly two hours later that it occurs to the now fully-awake young man to wonder why, exactly, their blond partner is bringing home strawberries.

His contemplations under the pounding of the water and the smooth bubbles of soap and shampoo give him the first inklings of an answer, when he recalls who was sent on the most recent acquisition mission.

When a familiar smooth deep baritone calls his name a few minutes later and portions of the earlier conversation (specifically, those regarding last night's mission and partial days off work) are replayed through the still-open bathroom door, he can't help but bring up the subject.

"That reminds me - Bright-eyes said you brought home strawberries last night?"

"Yes; after the past few weeks we've all had, I thought we could all use a treat. With the strawberry-scented this and that all over the apartment, I figure he must like them or something. Strawberries, I mean."

"And you do too, I take it...?" The sound is somewhat muffled by the water streaming down over black hair and golden skin and beating against the glass door of the shower stall.

"No, I mean, really like them. I know you like them, and you know I enjoy just about any sort of fruit..."

A snicker emanates from under cover of the rushing water, although whether it's in response to a particular memory or the double entendre is unclear.

Undaunted, the blond man continues. "And I wouldn't have gotten them if I didn't think they'd get eaten; you know how it drives him crazy to waste food. But, he did the last shopping run, right?"

"Yes; that's why I asked. This shampoo is all strawberry scented, and there's over a dozen more bottles just like it under the sink. I had to get a new one out today, and it's like that Murphy's cupboard under there - I am lucky that none fell on my head!"

A brief rumble of laughter greets the slightly indignant speech.

"I know I don't like shopping that much either, or running out of shampoo, but really! Did it have to be all strawberry?" The somewhat muffled rant pauses while the speaker ducks under the water for a rinse, then continues. "At least when I brought back seven bottles of the same conditioner it was a nice innocuous vanilla scent." There is no hiding the wry humour lurking behind the words now, and both men laugh.

"Ah, well," says the taller as he turns to leave, "it could be much worse than strawberry; it could be that floral stuff my sister keeps in her bathroom." He's interrupted by yet another snort of laughter at that.

"That stuff? I don't know how her boyfriend stands it. Although it smells pretty good on him, too... don't you think?" The question is a teasing jab at their friend, whose mishap with a garden rake and a mud puddle and his subsequent encounter with his charge's guest bath as he was arriving for a security systems check two days ago has been providing the entire department with gossip fodder ever since. It sets off peals of laughter that accompany the tall blond all the way 'round the corner and into the kitchen.

+

It doesn't take the oriental man very much longer to finish rinsing off the last of the soap, and turn off the water. He steps out and dries off quickly before heading for the bedroom, stopping at his closet on the way to pull out a clean pair of pants and a shirt. Five minutes later he is dressed and walking into the kitchen to see what his partner is up to.

On the counter-top, a small package of still slightly frozen meat and an array of now slightly damp vegetables is laid out. The blond, hair tied back in a ponytail to keep it clear of his work, is starting to peel a second carrot. An onion and a bag of peas are evidently still awaiting his attention.

"Are you planning something specific, or just making it up as you go along again?"

"I thought we could get dinner started now, while we're here, and then we won't have to mess with it later. We have the crock pot and we never end up using it. But I'm not sure about all of these vegetables; I don't want them to get mushy..." He trails off a little uncertainly.

"That's an excellent idea," is the approving response. He gives the vegetables in question a quick glance before continuing, "and most of those should be fine - but put the peas back in the fridge for now. You can add them in when you get home, so they won't overcook. You are still planning to leave early today, right?"

He nods. "Yes; I only have the one report to finish, so unless flower-child got so distracted by that rake he missed something..."

A snort from the shorter man interrupts him. "Him? He is nearly as paranoid about those security checks as his partner, now - especially where She is concerned." The capitalization afforded that particular pronoun is very evident in the emphasis it receives. He picks up the knife that has been set beside the cutting board and begins expertly slicing the components of their dinner-to-be into neat, even pieces, stopping between ingredients to lay the slices neatly into the crock.

"Ah, I know... Soldier boy's been a good influence on his sense of paranoia, hasn't he? Anyway, unless he botched that security check and something blows up over there, I'll be done well before four."

"Good. I'm not likely to be so fortunate; debriefing is at noon, and then they'll probably want me to go over the questioning results, and then there will be cataloguing the evidence, weapons check-ins, and all the other standard post-mission clerical adventures to deal with..."

"Ah, well, you'll be there all afternoon, so there's no point going in together. I'll just put the rice on when I get back, rather than using the cooker; the timer never seems to work right on that thing anyway."

"Speaking of paperwork - I need to leave a note before we go..."

The two continue chatting amiably in this manner while the rest of the dinner is laid into the pot, seasonings added, note written, and a quick lunch of sandwiches prepared and eaten. The two have moved on to discussing the upcoming wedding of a pair of friends, wondering how exactly the engagement came to pass, when the time comes to grab their own jackets. They are still laughing aloud at the thought that it was, more than likely, her idea to propose to him rather than the other way around, as they head out the door.

+

It is still early in the afternoon when the cheerful copper-haired man returns from work and shopping, shuts the door behind him with a foot, and swings his bags of groceries onto the table. "What's this - a note for me? Huh. It'll wait until I get these things put away..." A brief whirl of order sweeps through the kitchen then, carefully depositing cans in cupboards and perishables, including the promised whipping cream, into the refrigerator. A couple of special prizes are laid by on the counter-top next to the bread board.

"Now, this note..." Nimble fingers unfold the missive and bright blue eyes skim the perfect copperplate writing that adorns the paper. The "Hey, Bright-eyes!" written at the top elicits a smile and a softly spoken "love ya too, D-babe" before he reads further. "Hmm... dinner... wine... Blondie wants the black sheets on the bed? Huh. Laundry duty for me this afternoon, I guess, if we're going to be changing the linens!"

A moment later, the bedroom is a flurry of flying fabric, and a stream of muttered monologue. The contents of the large basket are upended onto the foot of the king-sized bed, and articles plucked from the top of the resulting pile are tossed to its four corners.

"Uniform pants, whites, whites, red, jeans - black, red, red, purple - that's with the reds, red, black, white jeans this time, uniforms, more whites, red again. What is it with him and red clothes? Not that it doesn't look great on him, but you'd almost think it was a lucky colour or something. I know it is for our Dragon, but really... Whites, uniforms... eewwwww what did you get into, D-babe? ugh..." The offending, or perhaps that should be offensive, garment is gingerly dropped onto the appropriate pile with a grimace of distaste.

"Uniforms, black, black, whites, blacks... " The monologue of assignment continues with barely a pause. "At least black goes with everything - especially more black - but reds, well... Fuchsia? And this scarlet one... Ooh, that's gonna look nice on him... Blue! When'd you get that, D-babe? Gotta be new... Hmph! At least they took the tags off before throwing them in the basket this time. Couple more uniforms, black, black, uniforms, and all this white! Whites, whites, reds again, uniforms, white pants, more white pants. I thought you'd stopped wearing whites, D? Oh, right, never mind, that formal early Valentines' thingy She held on Wednesday..."

With the erstwhile contents of the basket sorted, the young man proceeds to wriggle out of his own current outfit. "Black shirt, and..." there's a little more wriggling before, "...uniform pants. All sorted! They can just put their clothes from today in for the next wash... Now, to get these things back into the basket and down to the laundry room."

The various piles are stacked back into the basket, darkest through lightest. "Damn, but they were so cute in those matching outfits! Sister-dearest nearly had a conniption; funniest thing I've seen in ages! I know she didn't know what to make of them, all dressed up like twins and practically glued together! Eh, heh, guess Blondie hadn't told her yet. Well, she knows all about it now, anyway. Too bad I had to work that one! Could've really shocked 'em..."

Finally, he turns to pull the sheets from the bed and shake the pillows from three cases. "Man, never realized how seldom we pick new colours to wear. Does make sorting the laundry easy, though. Must remember to run those new shirts through a second rinse. The reds'll have to go separately, even if it does make a couple of short loads; don't want them bleeding on that new blue shirt..." The resulting pile of linens is dumped on top of the other laundry.

"Hah, all set! Now where's that..." A closet door is wrenched open. "Ah, hah, there you are, can't hide from me!" The closet is closed again, and a box of soap powder and a spray bottle are stacked precariously on top of the basket's other contents. A drawer is opened and a white T-shirt thrown on. A roll of coins is slipped into the pocket of a hastily donned pair of black jeans. With a final grunt of exertion, the basket and its bearer are out the door. There is the click of a key in the lock, and silence descends once again on the apartment.

+

A little more than two hours later, the now neatly washed and folded laundry is carried back in through the door. Instead of the expected silence, however, he is greeted by the soft strains of a classical rock ballad playing through the living room speakers at a low volume, the clank of metal on metal, and the sound of the refrigerator door being opened, then shut. Wanting to surprise his partner, he is careful to make no sound as he deposits the basket in the bedroom, leaving the soap beside it rather than risking the squeaky closet door.

Heels click sharply on the tiled floor and glass clacks on crockery as he returns to the kitchen. A low voice mutters quietly, "ah... good. Dinner's just about done simmering - where'd that... ah! bay leaf out now." A drawer opens and shuts, followed by a cupboard door. "There, now it can just sit until they get home..."

"Well, one of us is home already..."

"Aaack!" The tall man whirls about, spoon still in the hand that he clutches to his chest, to face the slightly shorter man leaning casually against the doorframe. "You'd think I'd get used to you sneaking up on me like that..." A glare crosses the blond's face, but it quickly dissolves into a smile nearly as broad as that on the face before him. "When'd you get in?"

"About..." He glances quickly at his wrist, "...two and a half hours ago, but I was down in the laundry room until just a minute ago. Wanna help me make the bed? It's quicker with two sets of hands."

The cook takes a quick glance at a pot on the stove-top, still a long way from boiling, before agreeing, "of course; I need to change out of this thing anyway." The sweeping gesture of one long-fingered hand highlights the fact that he has not yet gotten out of uniform. "And then maybe you can give me a hand with desert?"

"Oi, you know my limits in the kitchen! What needs to be done?"

"You're still pretty handy with a knife, right?"

"And when have I not been?"

Half an hour later the bed has been made and the cream whipped. The copper-haired man is slicing the last of the fruit into perfectly precise pieces, while his taller partner puts the container of vanilla sugar on the counter with the desert bowls and all the most perfect heart-shaped slices of the strawberries in a separate bowl for garnish. The blond man has already noted, with some amusement, the packages set so carefully by the cutting board earlier. Smiling happily, he pulls a corkscrew out of its drawer and brings plates and wine glasses out of their cupboards, setting them on the counter, before heading into the living room to retrieve several large candles.

+

The two have barely finished vacuuming and setting up the living room when the third man walks in, already taking off his uniform jacket and pulling the tie from his black hair. A quick peek into the living room to find the source of the faint scent of vanilla floating through the air causes him to widen his eyes, smile the same bliss-filled smile he bestowed upon the maker of his coffee that morning, and slip quickly into the bedroom to change.

In a minute's time he, too, wanders into the kitchen, once again causing the blond to jump when strong golden arms wrap gently around his waist.

"So," the smaller man's tenor voice murmurs against the platinum- covered shoulder-blade, "is everything ready?"

"Just about. I've got all the vanilla-scented pillars lit on the counter-top, where I can see them from the kitchen and from the table in the living room, the peas are cooked through, the rice is just finishing steaming, and the wine should be chilled by now." The blond turns in his raven-haired lover's loose hold. He says nothing about the two packages that are no longer on the counter- top, however.

"Ah, good..."

"Hey, there, shortcake!" It is the darkest man's turn to be startled, as he, in turn, is embraced from behind. That he makes no objection to the odd nickname makes it obvious that it's an endearment, as is the "Baka" he greets his assailant with.

"Catfooted, the both of you! How do you do it? No, never mind... I need to get the wine out," says the blond who steps back and turns to do just that.

"It has been a good year, hasn't it?" the brunet quietly asks.

His slightly shorter lover leans back comfortably into the embrace, getting a kiss on the ear for his trouble, before commenting. "An opportune time to celebrate. Or, begin celebrating, rather, given that we have the whole weekend ahead of us. I'll go light the rest of the candles you set out, and you two can start bringing in dinner."

The two separate then, moving to retrieve the plates and lighter respectively. As they walk into the living room, the taller of the two leans forward to speak quietly to his partner. "Oh, I've also managed to get the couch decorated with a few surprises - 'cause I don't want to be hunting for things later, and I am not using whipped cream for that again. I still don't think I got it all off after last month's little adventure with the hot chocolate."

"Oh, really? I suppose we could... fix that," comes the speculative reply.

Left alone momentarily in the kitchen, the blond man muses quietly to himself, "Yup, looks like everything's ready... and everyone..."

+

Dinner, of course, is perfectly splendid. There's just enough wine to complement it, and the rice turned out just right - evidently, the cooking lessons are going well. The conversation covers all the doings of the day, with a side dish of the latest twist of the office gossip regarding the rake incident.

Now, the plates have been cleared, except for one glass, resting on the mantlepiece, which holds the last of the wine. The blond has been sent to retrieve dessert, while the other two move the table over a few feet further away from the couch, leaving the centre of the room clear.

"So, just what were those 'surprises' you mentioned, sweetling?"

"Oh, just these..." One lithe arm snakes under the second throw pillow from the left, and emerges with two small tubes which are handed over for inspection.

"Strawberry, and chocolate flavoured? Really... Wherever did you find these?"

"Pharmacy, actually. Nice find, hmm?"

"Huh. Who knew? Ah, there you are... just set those on the table, and bring the glass down again... no, never mind fetching the spoons, I have... something else in mind." A positively wicked smirk crosses the speaker's handsome features, and a slight flush appears on the fair cheeks of the man whose hands are currently occupied with three small bowls.

Ah, dessert... What needs to be said about it, except that beyond the first few slices of the strawberries, very little of it stayed in the bowls it had been dished out into?

Later - much later - a quiet voice murmurs, "Come on, let's get you under water and see if we can't fix that whipped-cream problem, hmm?"

Another voice queries, "Hmm... me too?"

"Of course, you too - and I think I'm going to need to run myself through a second rinse to get all the strawberry off..."

+

"Hey, I love you, you know that, right?"

"Yeah..."

"Hai..."

Soft, even breathing is the only sound left to be heard.

~Owari~

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