They met him at the front doors of the restaurant. It was one of those exclusive restaurants that they both privately hated from the bottom of their hearts--a local burger place, even MacDonald's, would have been preferable--but it had become difficult in recent years to eat out in public except in places where the service had more pomp and ceremony than the entire Wimbledon, and where the cost of a meal still made Momoshiro's simple soul shrivel up in horror.
But Chef Kitamura was pretty good about grilling hamburgers for them, though it clearly pained his gastronomic soul, and it tasted good, even if he had to serve it with a salad arranged so precisely that Momoshiro thought that measuring tapes were involved. The fries were arranged like a tiny Jenga tower.
Still, there was no one to bother them about autographs and requests for pictures, and they were in a good mood as they left the restaurant. And that, Momoshiro thought without irony later, was just tempting fate.
They were just leaving, and he was walking up the steps towards the grand entrance. They did not even notice him until they almost walked into each other.
Echizen stiffened--though anyone who had not known him for the last twelve years would not detect it--even as Momoshiro grabbed his arm, the gesture open and even possessive in a way that the media had been trying to catch for years, and said, "Hello, Tezuka."
Tezuka ignored him. He was looking at Echizen.
Momoshiro tried to ignored the sense of discomfort filling him. It was almost like all those years ago, when Echizen and Tezuka would exchange those looks in the tennis court, mutual staring fests that shut everyone else out. Conversation often muted when this happened, and as he waited for them to stop, he would glance around, and study the way that Sakuno girl just stood there and looked more and more miserable with each second that passed.
He knew how she felt.
Finally, Tezuka glanced away, breaking the moment. "Momoshiro," he said, looking directly at him for the first time. The lenses of his glasses glinted under the bright sunshine as he turned, almost too sharp to look at directly. "And Echizen."
"Tezuka-buchou," Echizen said, his voice hoarse.
They were in the car when Momoshiro spoke again. "Are you all right?" he asked, resting the tips of his fingers gently on the steering wheel, wishing he felt as calm as he looked. "I know you haven't seen him for a long time--I haven't seen him for months, too--it must have given you a shock-"
"I'm fine," Echizen's tone, curt and clearly irritated, filled the confines of the car.
Momoshiro managed to bite back a retort, but the silence that followed was perhaps worse.
Almost imperceptibly, Echizen sighed. "Let's go home," he said, looking down at the seat as though in apology--it provided a way for him to hide his expression too, Momoshiro thought--and fell silent. It was best to to leave him to it. He was used to Echizen becoming quiet when he needed to work out his thoughts.
Momoshiro started the car and drove out into the main roads, stealing glances at Echizen as he negotiated the traffic while trying to remember if they needed to stop at the store for more Ponta. Somehow, although he had run into Tezuka now and then whenever they were back in Japan, as far as he knew, Echizen had never seen him again after that Paris Open tournament. Momoshiro had wondered once or twice if that was just coincidence, or just wilful avoidance on Echizen's part; whenever he was in Japan, Echizen spent most of his time at home--never in the park near Seigaku, or in the country clubs--or anywhere he could run into their former captain.
Echizen's former boyfriend.
It had been there for them to see all along--some in Seigaku chose not to see, but others, like him, saw only too clearly. He remembered the dismayed reaction among Echizen's female fans that year when the rumour began winding itself around the tennis courts, the clubhouse, the classrooms and the grounds of Seigaku. There were, as expected, plenty of rude remarks and not a little prurient speculation about what went on during their dates from the more immature students in the school. Momoshiro had beat up a few of them, until Oishi came across him trying to stuff a first-year into a dustbin.
"Tezuka has already graduated from Seigaku," Oishi had told him. "He's in Waseda now; what they say here can't hurt him."
"But Echizen-" he had protested, only to find himself oddly speechless at the look on Oishi's face. Oishi had always been known for his caring nature, but the open sympathy on that familiar face made him uncomfortable. "I-" he had tried to explain that it was important, that it was wrong to hear people say that about Echizen. It could affect his career! After all, he had just gone professional and image was everything-
"Echizen is not at Seigaku. It doesn't matter to him what people say. You know him best, I think." Oishi had said.
It struck him much later that Oishi had not said, "Tezuka knows him best."
Yes, the sole consolation in those years was that he still met up with Echizen as often as their schdules allowed--Echizen his training schedule and Momoshiro his preparations for the entrance exams of Tokyo University--they went for burgers, played tennis games in which he was defeated and where Echizen became unbearably smug, and even, on one memorable and unrepeated occasion, to the public baths where he had an unexpected eyeful of a naked Echizen that fueled years of masturbation fantasies.
Echizen did not mention his relationship with Tezuka at those times, and Momoshirou--cowardly--refused to ask. Let Echizen think that it was not a big deal to him; no, let Echizen think that he was homophobic, so that the topic would never surface. He didn't care to know. So they were dating. Cool. Fine. After years of staring at each other across the tennis courts, they were finally together.
They seemed happy. No, Echizen seemed happy. (He admitted that he didn't really care about Tezuka.) But Echizen seemed happy; yes, he really did. That had to be enough. He didn't realize then that it wasn't enough--that it hadn't been enough for a long time.
And now meeting Tezuka had brought all of that back. Momoshiro bit his tongue; a glance at his passenger showed that Echizen was still brooding. He drove slowly, negotiating the heavy traffic of downtown Tokyo with mechanical patience. Maybe he should try talking to Echizen...
"We're out of Ponta," Echizen said. He had been watching the sideview mirror, seeing the traffic speed past them in it, but now he looked up at Momoshiro, his face expectant.
"I hid a couple of cans in the bathroom," Momoshiro replied automatically.
"I found them last night," Echizen said.
"And you've finished them already?" At Echizen's nod, Momoshiro groaned, "Oh man, Sarah is going to kill me," he said. Sarah Mitsuhara was Echizen's nutritionist. "I thought she said one can per week!"
Echizen looked sulky.
Momoshiro made a face. "All that sugar and caffeine isn't good for you. It just makes you-" A mental image of Echizen on his knees before him rushed into his mind. "Wait a minute, last night--that was a Ponta high?" At Echizen's glare, Momoshiro amended hastily, "I mean, not that I'm objecting. I mean-" he swallowed against the memory and wrestled his libido back under control. "I'll stop by the supermarket," he said weakly.
The phonecall came sooner than he expected. He woke to hear the constant "beep-beep, beep-beep" that sounded like neither of their mobile phones. Not the alarm clocks either; all the three that they owned had alarms that could double for the sound of a pneumatic drill.
The apartment phone. That was the only thing he could think of, and as it turned out, he was right. He gropped the bedside table--it had to be there somewhere--and his fingers wrapped around a piece of plastic that seemed to be the right size and weight. He pulled it to his ear. "Momoshiro-" he said, remembering at the last minute to be polite (it could be Echizen's coach--or even worse, Sarah).
There was no answer on the other end. Momoshiro frowned, and woke up a little bit more, before he removed the object from the proximity of his ear and stared at it. Plastic red telephone receiver (Echizen's choice), yep, still with its curly phone line connected to... somewhere. He replaced the object at his ear. "Hello? Good morning?" he tried again.
Beside him, hidden so that only one sock-clad foot was sticking out from under the thick blanket, Echizen growled and mumbled something that was probably 'Shut up'.
Watching as Karupin leaped onto the bed and began chewing on the exposed foot, Momoshiro said, "This is Momoshiro Takeshi. If you have the wrong number, please don't call it again. I'm going to hang-"
His throat turned dry instantly. "Tezuka!" he whispered, an eye on the lump under the blanket.
Karupin heard, he suspected, for she immediately stopped trying to groom Ryoma's foot and gave him a dirty look. Momoshiro could empathise.
"I'm sorry for calling you so early in the morning," Tezuka said, his dry tones coming across clearly, and so familiar that Momoshiro found himself sneaking a guilty look at the beside clock. 11 am. It was a good thing Ryoma's coach never insisted on that so-called Spartan regime of waking up early every morning to train.
"Uh... it's all right," Momoshiro said, feeling silly and gauche.
Then again, Ryoma would have never accepted anyone who tried to push a training regime, nilly-willy, on him. When he needed to, Ryoma could push himself hard, but the season had ended--thus the relaxing of the Ponta rule--and anyway, given Ryoma's prowess these days, it was difficult to say for sure what else Coach Thompson could do. Gentle guidance, rather than outright orders, seemed to work best.
"I was under the impression that this was Echizen's number."
Momoshiro shivered, before he looked down to see Karupin licking his bare foot. "It is," he said. "I usually answer the phone on his behalf," he explained, wondering at the feeling of protectiveness that welled up in him at that. It was a good way to mislead reporters, who could usually be tricked into thinking that they had called the wrong number. "Um, did you want to speak to Ryo-Echizen?" For the life of him, he could not explain why he suddenly switched to last names.
Karupin dug sharp claws into his foot.
"Ow!" Momoshiro glared at the cat, twitched his foot back under the blanket, and missed hearing Tezuka's answer. "Excuse me, Tezuka, I didn't catch what you said, the cat scratched me."
"I said, yes, I would like to speak to Echizen."
Tezuka still sounded as though he was in the running for most stoic person of the year, Momoshiro thought meanly, then shook his head. No point putting off the inevitable. "Just a minute, please." He put a hand over the the receiver, and pulled off the blanket with his other hand.
Echizen grumbled, and pulled the pillow over his head.
"It's Tezuka," Momoshiro said as he shook him.
Ryoma remained unmoving.
"Come on, I know you're awake," he said. He suddenly felt irrationally angry that Echizen was still blissfully asleep when he, Momoshiro Takeshi, was dealing with reality. He pulled off the pillow and thrust the the phone against Echizen's face. "Here, talk to Tezuka. I'm going to make breakfast." He stepped out of bed and left, telling himself how stupid he was.
He should have just told Tezuka to call later, and disconnected the phone. He doubted that Tezuka could get their mobile phone numbers; they were a closely-guarded secret. But part of him knew that he was just delaying the inevitable. He went to the kitchen and started opening drawers and cabinets, setting out pots and pans and the rice-cooker.
Forty minutes later, Echizen entered the kitchen. He was already dressed, Momoshiro saw, with a painful neatness usually reserved for reporters. He stopped short when he saw the food on the table, and suddenly looked uncertain. "Takeshi-"
Momoshiro gave him a knowing look. "He invited you for lunch, huh."
Echizen nodded slowly, his eyes still on Momoshiro's face.
"Great!" Momoshiro said, speaking louder than before, turning away towards the stove. "You haven't seen him for years, you probably have a lot to talk about. I've heard that he's doing well at that law firm--probably made partner already."
Momoshiro whistled. "Tezuka is good at everything he does," he said.
"I'll be back late."
Momoshiro nodded. "I guessed that," he said. "Oh, are you going to play a game as well? Your racquet bag is-"
Echizen's face looked pinched suddenly.
"-under the couch," Momoshiro continued, and could have kicked himself. It was an automatic question; whenever one of Echizen's friends invited him--or more usually, both of them--the racquet bag went with them. "But not if you're going to a nice restaurant," he went on, as though the pause had never been there. "And if you are, it might be nice to offer to pay," he lectured, aware that in a stuggle between Echizen's indifference in non-tennis matters and Tezuka's sense of duty, there was no contest. "After all, you're the Grand Slam superstar."
Echizen was starting to look irritated, as he always did at the reference to his fame. "I'm going to go now."
Despite himself, Momoshiro followed him to the door. "Drive carefully! Remember that we drive on the left side in Japan-" A kick at him made him yelp as it connected with his shin. "Hey!"
"I know." Echizen hesitated, as though he wanted to say something.
Suddenly panicking but hoping that he could hide it, Momoshiro blew him a kiss in the most exaggerated way he could manage. "Goodbye!"
Echizen pulled his cap over his head, hiding his eyes from view. " 'bye."
And he was gone.
After feeding Karupin, Momoshiro sat down to deal with the paperwork. Being Echizen's manager was hardly as glamorous as it looked, just a lot of wrangling with tournament organizers, travel agents, and sponsors. It had been a hard slog when he first started--everything was in English, for example--but now it was only moderately irritating. It was also an excellent form of distraction.
He needed badly to be distracted.
He also needed to forget how he had found Echizen that day in Paris. It was exactly forty hours after he barged into Tezuka's home, demanding an explanation why he had abandoned Echizen to one of the most important tournaments of his life alone. Knowing that they had broken up one week ago was, ironically, no consolation--the intense public speculation over Echizen's increasingly erratic playing style had been worrying him for months. No one, not even someone of Echizen's temperament, could remain unaffected by it. He had assumed that Tezuka would be there...
He found Echizen on the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower.
"They say it's as tall as Tokyo Tower," Echizen had said, once he had seen that it was Momoshiro.
"Tokyo Tower is slightly higher," Momoshiro corrected him. "I think the builders wanted a replica that was even better than the original."
"I wish I had been to Tokyo Tower," Echizen said.
Echizen looked down at the city of Paris at their feet. "I want to know if being up here is like being up there in Tokyo."
"I've been to Tokyo Tower," Momoshiro volunteered, feeling awkward.
That got him a look of genuine interest.
"Two ti-no, three. No, four." Momoshiro counted back in his mind, and listed them aloud. "The first time was with my family. Then in my first year of junior high, and another time, er-" on a not-quite-date with Tachibana Ann, but he didn't say that. "-with friends. And the last time was with classmates in university." He was proud of himself for stumbling only once.
Echizen raised his eyebrows, but he only asked, with a look at the view. "Well, is it like Tokyo Tower?"
Momoshirou glanced up and down the scenery. "Not really."
The sound of that familiar dismissive sound gave Momoshiro the courage to approach him then. "Well... when we get back to Tokyo, we can go there. Together." He started to say 'as friends', but the words stopped in his chest.
It was a long time before Echizen nodded agreement.
He dared to put an arm around Echizen's shoulders then. Echizen would never be tall--a fact that annoyed him greatly--but just in that moment, Echizen felt much smaller to him. After a group of tourists had come and left, he realized that Echizen was leaning against him, fast asleep.
In his darker moments, Momoshiro wondered if he was merely an opportunist who saw an opening and took it. After all, he had appeared on the scene at a time when Echizen needed someone to be at his side, to sit him through the barrage of publicity that came from suddenly backing out of the Paris Open, to cajole him through the breakup, and to play tennis with him.
Play tennis. Momoshiro had assumed that there would always be tennis betwen Echizen and Tezuka, until the day he learnt that there wasn't.
He remembered the conversation he had overheard once while he was at the Echizen family home. They hadn't realized he was within range, and their voices carried. At least, Echizen Nanjiroh's did.
"'He doesn't play tennis with you, he doesn't come to your games, and he doesn't train with you, either-" Echizen Nanjiroh's voice was roughened with age and annoyance. "Damn it, boy. No one's that good a fuck."
Echizen's answer was inaudible, but he had stalked out a moment later.
Momoshiro had made sure to play tennis with Echizen from then on. He was not the challenge for Echizen the way Tezuka was, but he thought that there were times when Echizen just wanted to play for the fun of it--he wanted to enjoy tennis too--and he would help with that.
That his role as a supporter had grown into something more made Momoshiro glad yet uneasy at the same time. It was perhaps not too much to wonder if Echizen had turned to him merely as a substitute, right? He was no Tezuka, but even someone like Echizen could be lonely. The worst of it, Momoshiro sometimes thought, was that there was a part of him that didn't even care. He had had time--years of it--enough to know that harbouring a secret passion for another person was frustrating, tiring and about as comforting as a hole in the head.
His phone--his mobile phone, not the apartment one--started to twitch and burst into song, and Momoshiro grabbed it, glad of a distraction.
"This is Momoshiro."
"Are you aware that your boyfriend is having lunch with Tezuka?"
There was real annoyance in the speaker's voice, something that occurred with the same frequency as a leap year. Momoshiro said in surprise, "Atobe?"
"Is there something wrong with your hearing?"
"Yes... I mean, no, I heard you perfectly well. And yes, I know that Ryoma is having lunch with Tezuka."
"Ah." Atobe sounded as though the wind had been taken out of his sails. "I wondered."
So do I. In a way, it was almost sweet of Atobe to be concerned. "We met Tezuka coming out of a restaurant yesterday. They haven't met for years, you know."
"No reason why that state of affairs couldn't have continued," Atobe sniffed. He had recovered from his bemusement--however muted--almost immediately.
"Atobe Keigo." He was one of the very few people who had won the privilege of addressing the man by his full name, and he used it now with relish.
"But if you need to," Atobe continued as though he hadn't spoken, "I can be amenable to a similar invitation, but at an establishment considerably more upscale than 'The Steakhouse'."
To make Ryoma jealous? "There's no need for that. But thank you. Besides, I wouldn't want to be the cause of domestic disharmony."
There was a significant pause. "Ah, Takeshi. You're still holding irrational grudges."
Momoshiro tried not to sigh; he hadn't meant to bring up the past. It was typical of dealing with Atobe Keigo that one managed to end up owing him a favour even when he was--technically speaking--ruining one's carefully cultivated plan to appear as a hetrosexual male to the object of one's crush.
So it had only been one kiss. But it was in the days when Echizen was still with Tezuka, and it happened right in front of the two of them. He had been too surprised when Atobe leant over and kissed him, to push him away, but he had wanted to. Just as he wanted to rebut Atobe for saying "For old time's sake, Takeshi," with a significant glance at Echizen and Tezuka. Just because he and Atobe had dated briefly and disastrously--an eternity ago--didn't mean he wanted Echizen to know that he dated men.
He didn't, because there had been that spark of wild hope, however irrational, that turned rapidly to anger when he realized how foolish it all was.
Though he had felt vindicated that night Atobe had phoned and said that he hoped Momoshiro was happy because he, Atobe Keigo, had been relegated to the couch.
Momoshiro had scoffed and said if the incomparable Atobe Keigo didn't have a guest room in that great big mansion of his, he would be very surprised.
Atobe said it was the principle of the thing.
Momoshiro said that it seemed to him that Akutagawa Jirou didn't seem to have a great deal of trust in his lover, and could that be because Atobe went around kissing his ex-boyfriend and trying to persuade onlookers that he was still involved with said ex-boyfriend?
That marked the one and only time he had heard Atobe use a rude word.
"I'm not holding a grudge," Momoshiro said. A polite scoff let him know how unconvincing he was. "It's just lunch," he said. "It's all right." He had his insecurities, but he was not deluded enough to think that a single lunch appointment (not a date) would be enough to change things between them.
Well, maybe if Tezuka begged and grovelled. Momoshiro had a brief, pleasurable fantasy of Tezuka beating his head in the dust and announcing 'I'm a jerk' to Echizen over and over again, but had to admit that it sounded about as likely as flying pigs.
"I'll take your word for it," Atobe said, managing to insert just the right enough amount of doubt to hint that he also doubted Momoshiro's ability to dress himself.
"Thanks," Momoshiro said, rolling his eyes. They would not be in Japan long enough to matter anyway; they were going back to the US as soon as Nanako's wedding was over. They exchanged only a few more comments before the conversation ended, and Momoshiro put down the phone with Atobe's superior tone still in his mind.
It was just lunch, Momoshiro told himself again, before he glanced at the study clock, which read 15:00. And if they talked a little longer than usual, well, that was the way of those who had known each other for a long time.
In one of his masochistic moments a long time ago, Momoshiro had tried to imagine Echizen and Tezuka on a date, and found that it hurt his head more than his heart. Both of them were just so... well, he knew Echizen to be taciturn. But Tezuka was not someone of many words either, and for all that he commanded unthinking respect from the tennis team--and his classmates--he was not a person who automatically put one at ease with his warm manner. Not that Tezuka was a disturbing or unfriendly person; far from it. His passion for tennis burned so strongly, one ached to watch him. It was rare--and a true honour--to meet someone who had something so pure.
Which made Tezuka's refusal to play professional tennis something of a puzzle.
And it made interpersonal relationships a little stiff, at least to Momoshiro's way of thinking. One of the reasons he had assumed that Echizen would get along well with Tezuka was that their non-communicative natures matched.
Sometimes he wondered if Echizen longed for that quietness, and tried to talk less himself. But his and Echizen's relationship had started off on a friendship where he was the talker, the communicator and he couldn't see it changing.
All right, so he was wondering what they could be talking about. Momoshiro growled in his throat, glaring at the clock, which now read 15.10, and resolved not to look at it anymore.
The phone rang.
"I just saw Echizen with Tezuka," Fuji announced without preliminaries when Momoshiro answered. "I assume you know of this."
Startled at hearing that voice, Momoshiro stuttered, "F-fuji-senpai?"
"You do, right?" Fuji's cool, amused voice abruptly grew less so.
Momoshiro tried to shake off a feeling of d 閖?vu. "Yeah... I mean, yes. We met Tezuka by accident yesterday and he called today."
"He hasn't seen Echizen for four years," Fuji said slowly. "I suppose it's safe enough."
Momoshiro tried to process what he was hearing. For a moment it sounded as though Fuji was afraid that Tezuka and Echizen would get back together. Just on the basis of one meeting? He swallowed. It was frightening to hear that his darkest fears, the irrational thoughts whose existence he tried to deny, being spoken by another person. And by Fuji, of all people.
Rather than going into professional tennis or photography, as those who knew him had expected, Fuji had gone into advertising. Privately, Momoshiro thought the ability to manipulate large, unthinking crowds into embracing the most ridiculous fads was a tailor-made vocation for someone of his senpai's temperament. And Fuji had been the first to suspect about him.
Not that it was such a big secret, Momoshiro acknowledged with chagrin whenever he looked back to his high school days. He had been genuinely fond of Echizen as a teammate, not imagining that he felt anything else except friendship, but Fuji and a few others had already known. The year that Echizen left school to go professional in the US, it was Momoshiro who went about organising farewell dinners, gift exchanges and collecting photographs of the Nationals and their various opponents to make a present for Echizen.
Fuji had given him a knowing smile, once, and when he came to Momoshiro's home to deliver a package of photographs, said to him, "You should go with him."
Momoshiro had looked down at Fuji's stack of photographs about the tennis team having fun--at Kawamura's shop, at the beach, at the celebrations for the Nationals (but never playing tennis)--and said, "What?"
Fuji had said nothing more, and only smiled mysteriously.
And later--it was Fuji, in Paris, who told Momoshiro where to find Echizen. Still, it was a little insulting that their relationship was thought so fragile. "Fuji-senpai, I know you're concerned, but-"
"I'm being nosy?" Fuji asked, all innocence.
Momoshiro backpedalled. "No! Of course not, Fuji-senpai!" he exclaimed.
A chuckle. "I'm being paranoid. Tezuka sometimes dwells on things he shouldn't," Fuji said. "But Echizen doesn't have that problem."
"We should go out for dinner sometime," Fuji said. "Seeing that you're in Japan. I want to see you and Echizen."
Momoshiro reminded himself that Fuji's powers of manipulation were now used for the power of the light--at least, on unthinking consumers, who deserved all they help they could get--and that it was all innocent. "Of course," he said warily.
"It's not all personal, believe me," Fuji said. "Echizen is still open to endorsement deals, right?"
"Not for Ponta." Echizen personally felt that it was unfair that the only product--other than tennis equipment--that he wanted to endorse was something that was forbidden to him. The most surreal thing about dietary restrictions, Momoshiro thought, was having to buy Ponta in secret during the game season and wrapping it in newspaper at the checkout counter.
Fuji said, "Nothing that tempting. I'll tell you more in a few days' time. How much longer will you be in Japan?"
"Another two weeks," Momoshiro said. "Nanako--that's Ryoma's cousin--her wedding is next week."
"Right. I'll call you in a few days' time."
"Yes, Fuji-senpai. And-" he coughed, "thank you for calling. About Tezuka and Echizen."
"I wanted to." And then Fuji hung up.
Momoshiro went back to his work. Possibly out of a desire to compete with Tezuka--in some small way--he had studied law at university as well. It was good preparation for becoming Echizen's manager, though he had to hire an English translator for the first few months.
Echizen's old manager had done an adequate job, but it was soon clear to Momoshiro, that he was not someone who understood Echizen and what was more, felt increasingly bewildered by the way Echizen seemed to be coming apart as his relationship with Tezuka continued.
Though he had refused to ask at that time, hints still came to him from time to time. Especially after Echizen's star began rising. The international tennis circuit conquered their astonishment at a Japanese boy who was also the son of the Samurai, whose mouthy attitude drew detractors and admirers alike, and who played--not perfect tennis, but astonishing tennis--and followed his burgeoning career with interest. He rose fast, but after he got together with Tezuka, there were odd upsets as well. At first it was just a game in twenty, then one in a dozen, then one in six. Echizen's brilliance kept him ahead of the curve, but the whole thing was unpredictable and worrying.
Momoshiro still didn't know what went wrong between Echizen and Tezuka. But as Fuji had reminded him, Echizen was not a person who dwelled on the past, and that he guessed, would have to be enough.
He worked until it grew dark and he couldn't ignore the clock anymore, which said 18:40, and he fed Karupin again, before he made dinner, ate it and fell asleep in front of the television. His last thought before his eyelids slipped close was that perhaps they were going to have to find a new restaurant, one where they wouldn't run into Tezuka even by accident...
"Hamburger Haven." Momoshiro sat up with the nonsensical words on his lips, and realized that his phone was singing. Blearily, he noticed that the television was still on (a cooking programme of some sort) and switched it off. He groped for his phone in the dark--after all, he had brought it to the couch with him--found it.
"I forgot my keys."
"Ryoma! You're outside?"
It should have been impossible, but he swore he could hear Echizen rolling his eyes over the phone. Where else could he be? Momoshiro asked himself. "Sorry, I was asleep." He walked to the front door and opened it. The phone connection cut off, and he was looking at Echizen at the door.
Momoshiro glanced at his phone as Echizen walked in. It was 20:16. It had been more than eight hours.
"I'm hungry," Echizen announced.
"I made dinner for myself," Momoshiro said, responding on autopilot, "but you're welcome to my leftovers." There were a lot of leftovers, he thought belatedly; he hadn't eaten much just now.
"Okay." Echizen made his way to the kitchen, switched on the lights and sat down expectantly.
Despite himself, Momoshiro chuckled and started to take the covered plates out of the refrigerator, before putting the first one in the microwave oven. "You want me to feed you?" he asked. "What am I, your manager?"
Echizen clearly thought that didn't deserve a reply, but there was a hint of a smile on his mouth.
He sat down to watch Echizen eat, and stole his food as he realized that he was hungry again. Echizen let him, surprisingly enough.
"Oishi-senpai called me just now." Echizen said after about ten minutes of silent eating.
"You too?" Momoshiro said, before he could stop himself. "I mean," he said when Echizen looked up in curiosity. "It's just that Fuji-senpai called me too."
"Oh, just about an endorsement," Momoshiro said quickly. "We arranged to discuss it in a few days' time," he added.
Echizen's gaze grew suspicious. Perhaps he, like Momoshiro, harboured misgivings about Fuji's influence on the public now and then. "Endorsement for what?"
Momoshiro was forced to admit, "I don't know."
Echizen's look of disgust was eloquent.
"Anyway. It's probably something fashionable and strange and will have thousands of teenage girls rushing to the shops. Never mind, why did Oishi-senpai call you?"
"I think he wanted to know if we were breaking up."
Momoshiro was too surprised to say anything other than a strangled "What?"
"He didn't say so, but I thought that was what he meant. He said he saw Tezuka-buchou and I having lunch by accident."
Momoshiro doubted the 'by accident' part of that.
"Then Inui-senpai called me."
Momoshiro let his head thunk onto the table.
"He said the same thing," Echizen said. Momoshiro looked up in time to see his brow wrinkle slightly. "At least, I think he did. There were too many numbers."
Inui was highly successful in his career as an investment banker--Momoshiro trusted him whole-heartedly with Echizen's money--but the more ennumerate he was, the more difficult it was to understand him. It was really very pleasant that one's friends thought he and Echizen were on the verge of a breakup, he thought sarcastically.
"What... what did you say to them?" Momoshiro asked.
"I said no." Echizen gave him a strange look, as though wondering what else he could have said.
"Uh... right." He didn't know else what to say, so he asked, "So... how is Tezuka?" What did you talk about, he wanted to ask.
"He's... fine." Echizen suddenly bent all his attention to his food, unwilling to look him in the eye.
All Momoshiro could think about was, I shouldn't have asked. It seemed as though, even after all this time, Tezuka still hurt him.
"We had lunch and we talked a little, for a long time."
Momoshiro reflected that only between Tezuka and Echizen could a description like 'talked a little, for a long time' not sound ridiculous.
"I went for a walk after that," Echizen said. After a long time, he continued, "I think-" and looked down.
Momoshiro waited, his heart thudding. Maybe this was it. Maybe Ryouma found that he wanted to see more of Tezuka. Maybe they already had another appointment fixed! Then it registered that Ryouma had answered. "What?" he asked.
Ryouma went to the refrigerator and found Momoshiro's hidden stash of Ponta. "I think we should go to another restaurant next time," he said, popping the can open.