[Narise Konohara] Of Beauty / Of Love – Part 2

by 9ave

Continued from Part 1.

Matsuoka was contacted by his former upperclassman, Rokushima, about midway through September. When Rokushima asked to see him on Saturday or Sunday during the daytime, Matsuoka turned him down, saying he had plans that he could not change. Rokushima then proposed a compromise to meet on Friday night. Hirosue was coming down on Friday night, but Matsuoka also felt guilty for turning Rokushima down so many times. He agreed to see the man for a little bit and told Hirosue to go on and wait for him at his apartment.

At seven in the evening, Rokushima arrived twenty minutes late to the Western-style pub near the station where they were scheduled to meet.

“Sorry about that. The consultation with my client went on for longer than I expected.”

Rokushima downed a glass of beer as soon as he arrived. He and Matsuoka had gone to the same university, but Matsuoka had been in the Faculty of Finance while Rokushima was two years his senior and in the Faculty of Law. Although they were in different schools, they came to know each other through soccer club. Club members didn’t actually play soccer, like a soccer team; they mainly spectated at games as supporters.

Rokushima and Matsuoka started talking as fellow fans of a minor team called the Predis, and after they hit it off, they went to watch soccer games from time to time. Even now, when they occasionally got good tickets, they still invited each other out. Games were more fun to watch with someone you knew, rather than someone who wasn’t interested.

“They won in the last game, eh?” Rokushima grinned.

“They did.”

“That was a spectacular assist by Kaido, don’t you think?”

Matsuoka gave a sheepish grin. “I know the results, but I actually didn’t get to watch the game.”

“Oh, really? It was a good one.”

The game had been broadcast on cable TV last week. It was at a convenient time, too, at nine on a Saturday night, but since Hirsue had been over, Matsuoka had completely forgot to even record it for later.

“Have you got a girlfriend, by any chance? Is that why?”

“Well, I guess,” Matsuoka affirmed modestly.

“You were single for a pretty long time after breaking up with your ex, huh?”

“Yeah.”

Two years’ worth of Matsuoka’s one-sided feelings had finally been requited about two months ago, but he wasn’t about to say that to others.

“Hey, do the ladies like that?” Rokushima pointed the short goatee on Matsuoka’s chin.

“Um, I’m not sure if they do.”

“A goatee must be nice.” Rokushima stroked his own clean-shaven chin.

“Why don’t you try one out?” Matsuoka suggested.

“No can do,” Rokushima said, shrugging. “First impressions are important, right? So if I even give off a hint of―what would you call it―casualness? It’s bad for my image.”

Rokushima had a stocky build and his facial features were pronounced. If he fashioned himself a goatee, he would go beyond casual into downright scary-looking territory. The man himself didn’t seem to realize it.

“Especially old people,” Rokushima continued. “I’m sailing a boat made of mud, so I can’t afford to take any risky gambles.”

This April, Rokushima had left his position at a large law firm to open his own business. Rokushima seemed to be having a hard time running his own business, which was different from a large law firm where a steady stream of work came in without the need to market oneself, and a salary was deposited regularly into one’s bank account. At his own firm, big jobs weren’t guaranteed to come in, and the jobs that did come in were not all necessarily good money, either.

Matsuoka touched his own chin. At first, he had grown a goatee purely out of the desire to change his look as drastically as possible. At the time, he had still been going out on sales rounds, and all of his business contacts had poked fun at him. He thought about shaving it off once he got promoted to section chief, but by then it had become a sort of trademark. Matsuoka lost his chance to shave his goatee off, which was why he was still wearing it today.

Matsuoka wasn’t too attached to his goatee, and he felt like it was high time he changed his look. He was held back, however, by Hirosue’s unexpected affinity for it. He would often touch Matsuoka’s chin, and lick or bite it as if to get a better feel for it. ―Hirosue had strange tastes.

Matsuoka glanced at his watch.

“Oh, I should let you know beforehand. I actually have to be home by nine today.”

“Come on, we haven’t seen each other in ages and this is how you treat me? You heartless guy,” Rokushima grumbled as he went on to drink his second beer. After taking a draught, he let out a great sigh with a foam moustache on his upper lip.

“My clerk is quitting at the end of the year,” he said. Back when he opened his own law firm in April, Rokushima had been looking to hire a clerk. Matsuoka had heard the news just when Hirosue had been laid off and was having trouble landing his next job.

Matsuoka had jumped at the chance to bring up the topic of Rokushima’s firm to Hirosue. But at the time, Hirosue had not told Matsuoka about his layoff. By acting on his own discretion, on information from a third party, and setting up a job opportunity for Hirosue without even hearing anything from the man himself, Matsuoka had delivered a harsh blow to Hirosue’s pride as a man.

It had been hell after that. Not only did Hirosue dump him in the worst way possible and go back to the country, Matsuoka had also caused a headache for Rokushima, whom he had begged to keep the position open.

To be honest, even now Matsuoka did not want to remember what happened back then.

“She’s quitting?” Matsuoka asked. “But it’s only been six months. Is she getting married, or something?”

After that, Rokushima had hired a twenty-two-year-old female university graduate as a clerk.

“That’s right.” Rokushima hunched his shoulders. “But she’s doing me a huge favour by quitting. I was wrong for being too indulgent with her just because her face and voice was cute. It was my first time managing other people, too, so I’d just let the little mistakes slide, but thanks to that she hasn’t learned how to do her job at all.”

He heaved a long sigh.

“I knew I couldn’t let this continue, so I tried to be strict to her, but she’d start crying every time. So you get all this menial work accumulating because she hasn’t learned how to do her job, which in turn makes my irritation build up. I used to turn a blind eye when she’d make personal calls during work, but it started to get on my nerves more and more. When she said she was quitting to get married, I was jumping for joy. That means I’d only have to put up with three more months of her.”

After raising his arms triumphantly, Rokushima plucked a piece of avocado from his salad and tossed it into his mouth.

“She was great at the interview, you know. She had a cute smile, spoke clearly, and she seemed like she had an eye for details. But nowadays there are books out there on how to perform well at interviews. If you read one of those cover-to-cover, it’d probably be easy to give the kind of answers I’m looking for. ―It goes to show that you don’t know what someone is like until you start working with them. So, that’s why,” Rokushima continued, “I’ve learned my lesson. You can’t tell how good someone is from their education or interview. This time, I want someone whom I already know can do the work. Not women, because they’re troublesome. A man. Someone who’s upright, down-to-earth, and has clerical experience.”

Hirosue face rose in the back of Matsuoka’s mind.

“Hey, remember in March you said you knew someone good?” Rokushima said.

Matsuoka swallowed hard.

“I remember you mentioning he was upright to the point of being uptight. Former co-worker, right?”

“Well, ah…”

Rokushima nodded slightly. “Back then, you told me so many times he was a good candidate. I feel like I could trust this guy if this is coming from you. Do you think he’d want to work for me after the girl quits in December?”

Rokushima bit into a chicken wing as he spoke.

“But, well, seeing what happened with the girl and everything, it’d be best if I could have drinks with this guy once in lieu of an interview. Talk openly with him before I decide.”

Matsuoka lowered his face and thought.

“Do you need an answer right away?” he asked.

“Mm, not right away. The girl’s going to be around until the end of December. But if he can, it’d be nice to have him come in once a week starting in the end of November for a couple of times. That way, the transfer would go over more smoothly.”

It was past nine-thirty when Matsuoka got on his train to go home. Rokushima told him he wanted an answer about the clerical position by the end of November.

Matsuoka had already e-mailed Hirosue once at the izakaya to tell him that he was coming home late. On the train home, he also sent an e-mail, saying, ‘I’m on my way home now. Sorry.’ He got a reply immediately.

‘No problem. Be careful on your way back.’

There was nothing to be careful about, since he was a man, but Matsuoka couldn’t hide the happy feeling in the corner of his heart as he snapped his cell phone shut.

Hirosue always came every weekend. He came without fail, unless Matsuoka was on a business trip or had plans he could not change. Since Hirosue was living at his parents’ house, he said that the money he got from helping out only amounted to a part-time worker’s wage. Coming out every week was surely a heavy financial burden. If he kept going beyond his means, it would not last. Matsuoka had once suggested that he could visit Hirosue in the country instead, but Hirosue did not relent.

Matsuoka had also proposed paying for Hirosue’s bullet train fare. Hirosue had suddenly gone silent, his face turning rigid. Matsuoka had broken into a cold sweat, thinking he had hurt Hirosue’s pride like he did when he brought up the job offer. He almost wished Hirosue would get angry ― that way, at least he could apologize.

What if Hirosue simply left the room without saying anything? What if he refused to listen to Matsuoka’s explanation or apology, and it was going to be like the time he went back to the country all over again? Matsuoka’s stomach had churned in the face of the silent man before him.

“Thank you for worrying about me,” Hirosue had said quietly a long while later. “But this is something I do because I want to. You don’t have to worry about it, Matsuoka.”

Hirosue did not get angry, nor did he leave. But his eyes were sad as he stroked Matsuoka’s cheek. Now Matsuoka had no doubts that this topic was taboo. Since then, he had not spoken a single word more about it.

But just because he had stopped talking about it, it didn’t mean that Matsuoka wasn’t still worried about Hirosue’s finances. So, after much thought and debate, Matsuoka decided to start cooking at home. They always went out to eat when Hirosue came down, but if they kept it up every week, it would add up to quite a lot of money. They split the bill cleanly in half every time, and although Hirosue treated him occasionally, he never let Matsuoka treat him. If he started cooking at home, Matsuoka figured he would at least be able to save Hirosue some food money.

In terms of cooking, Matsuoka only knew how to make fried noodles, grilled egg, and a few other dishes. He was good at making curry, but he wouldn’t be able to serve just that to Hirosue. Matsuoka bought a recipe book which was emblazoned with the copy “Super Easy!” on the cover, and slowly began to study cooking.

At first his results were not too tasty, but once he got the hang of it, he began to be able to cook decently well. He didn’t want Hirosue to pick up any hint about why he had suddenly changed to home-cooking, so Matsuoka lied and told him he had to eat healthy because his company’s medical checkup was coming up.

Although Matsuoka had started cooking more or less out of necessity than choice, he soon found that it wasn’t all burdensome. At first, Hirosue had only peered at what Matsuoka was doing from behind, but now he had gradually started to help out.

For Matsuoka, it was faster just to do things by himself. To be honest, Hirosue was more of a hindrance than a help, but it was cute to watch the man peel potatoes with clumsy hands and a look of intense concentration.

“Is this okay?” he would say hesitantly as he cautiously presented his sliced carrots which were a little too thick to be called slices.

When Matsuoka said “Not quite,” he would hang his head in dejection. The sight was so endearing, it made Matsuoka laugh.

Although cooking helped a little, such a patchwork solution for saving money did nothing to solve the root of the problem. Matsuoka found out that his company had a sales office near Hirosue’s house, about forty minutes away by car, and looked into it. However, there were few employees there, and there were no openings. When he made a casual mention of it to an acquaintance in Human Resources, the man told Matsuoka that although the place was a branch office, it was mostly made up of contract workers; there were only two permanent employees.

“You think they’d take my request for a transfer?” Matsuoka had asked him.

“Not a chance,” his acquaintance had said with a laugh.

Matsuoka was moving steadily up the ranks at his company. Being transferred from headquarters to a branch company away from the city would be a stall or regression in his career, and definitely not a step up. Matsuoka liked his job and wanted to move upwards, but even more than that, he wanted to be with Hirosue.

To be completely honest, he wished Hirosue would come out of the country. He had said his brother and wife had succeeded the family business, and if it weren’t for his layoff, Hirosue would have stayed in the city. Since the lack of a job had sent him back to the country, Matsuoka felt like Hirosue would come back out again if he had a place to work at.

He was still deep in thought when his train arrived at the station near his condo. He went through the ticket gates and walked briskly. He didn’t want to keep Hirosue waiting when the man had already come such a long way to see him.

“Matsuoka.”

A voice called him from behind while he was waiting at a red light in front of the station. Matsuoka turned around and was startled to see Hirosue there.

“Let’s walk home together,” Hirosue said with a shy grin. He was wearing jeans and a collared shirt, Hirosue’s trademark combination. “I was at the bookstore, anyway, and I figured you’d get here any minute now, so I was waiting. You went zooming past, so I almost couldn’t catch you.”

A small plastic bag hung from Hirosue’s hand. Matsuoka wondered if he was being overly optimistic for thinking that the book was just an excuse for the man to come pick him up.

“Oh, um… sorry for being late,” Matsuoka apologized. “I was talking with a former upperclassman from university, and we got carried away.”

The light turned green, and they crossed the street together.

“Don’t worry about me. You should have taken your time.”

Matsuoka was careful with his tone. But Hirosue’s words did not seem to carry any deeper meaning, and Matsuoka did not feel the need to delve deeper for one. Nonetheless, if Hirosue’s book was an excuse to pick him up, he felt like he had made the man weary of waiting, which made him feel guilty.

A droplet hit the tip of Matsuoka’s nose. Hirosue also lifted his face.

“…It’s raining.”

They were less than ten minutes away from the condo. If only the sky had held out a little longer. What bad timing it was.

“Matsuoka, let’s run.”

The man suddenly grabbed his right hand and broke into a run. His hand was yanked along, and Matsuoka also hastily stumbled into a run after him. The hand that held his was hot. Since they were already close to the condo, it did not take them long to arrive. Although they had been running for less than five minutes, Matsuoka’s shoulders still rose and fell with the strain once they burst into the entrance lobby.

“I was surprised when you suddenly started running.”

The elevator quietly ascended.

“I thought we’d get wet.”

The running seemed to have quickened the flow of alcohol in his system. Although he had started to sober up, Matsuoka began to feel lightheaded again. He staggered from the slight dizziness, and quickly grabbed onto Hirosue’s arm.

“Are you alright?”

“Um. Yeah. I think the alcohol’s coming around again.”

As Hirosue supported his back, Matsuoka looked up. When their eyes met, the man pulled him closer until their bodies were nestled up against each other. Even though they were alone now, other people could come on at any minute. The sight of two men hugging like this was abnormal, no matter how you looked at it.

“Hirosue―” Before he could say “get away from me” his lips were sealed with a kiss. It was for a split moment ― so short he didn’t even have time to push the man away ― and the man gave him such a happy, mischievous grin that it was hard to reprimand him.

The elevator stopped. Even after they exited into the hallway, they were still holding hands. Matsuoka felt helplessly happy but embarrassed at the same time, and he kept his head down as they walked, even though no one was watching.

Hirosue was a quiet man, but sometimes he was bold in his actions. Matsuoka could never predict Hirosue’s timing, and was always taken by surprise.

Hirosue unlocked the door with the spare key that Matsuoka had given him. Their fingers were still linked after they went inside. He didn’t want the man to let go, nor did he have any intentions of letting go himself.

“Matsuoka, you’ve eaten, right?”

“Yeah. ―What about you, Hirosue?”

“I had something at the izakaya nearby.”

The hand clasping his tightened its grip. The man gazed at him in the dim light of the entrance. Matsuoka sensed he would be invited to bed. The man’s palm was unusually hot.

“Do you want to take a shower together?”

It was Hirosue’s way of coming onto him. Judging by the mood, it looked like they would be heading straight for the bathroom. Matsuoka put his work bag down on the floor.

“Okay,” he said meekly.

 

They had talked about going somewhere on Saturday, like the movies. But it continued to rain hard, and going outside seemed bothersome.

As they discussed what to do, Matsuoka remembered that he had bought a DVD that he hadn’t watched yet. Even though it was still daytime, they both cracked open beers and lazed around on the sofa. Hirosue eventually fell asleep on Matsuoka’s lap.

Hirosue did not wake up even after the movie was over. Matsuoka was filled with happiness to feel the lingering spot of warmth in his lap. If Hirosue had to be a cat or dog, he would definitely be a dog, Matsuoka thought. He wished Hirosue really was. If Hirosue were a dog, Matsuoka would be able to keep him in his apartment. They would be able to sleep together every night.

When they had just started dating, Matsuoka was happy but anxious ― anxious that the man would suddenly get sick of him and abandon him. But now, after close to two months, thanks to Hirosue’s actions, he began to feel like it was alright.

Hirosue was gentle, and showed Matsuoka that he cared in his own way. He came down every week and slept over. He phoned and e-mailed every day, he left no room for doubt. Matsuoka knew Hirosue loved him with all this being, and was also making efforts to keep their relationship going. He wished that was enough to satisfy him, but he found himself wanting more and more.

The time they spent together was enjoyable. But whether they made love like animals or frolicked playfully, once Sunday evening rolled around, Hirosue left to go home. There was no moment that Matsuoka hated more than the moment of coming home after seeing Hirosue off at the station. Even the sight of his half-finished cup of coffee on the table made the void in his heart ache.

He wanted Hirosue to work at his upperclassman’s firm, and live here with him. They could say they were doing a flat-share: that would serve as a decent excuse for the rest of society. But he could not say it. The dilemma formed an unsettling knot in his chest.

For all his mildness and gentleness, Hirosue had the pride to match. If Matsuoka did him unasked favours, it would probably make his mood worse, just like the time Hirosue had left him to go back to the country.

Hirosue was a man to whom Matsuoka had finally been able to get through after a gruelling experience. He didn’t want to let things get awkward between them or let the man go because of such a small thing.

Although Matsuoka knew he couldn’t bring the topic up to Hirosue, he also could not refuse the job proposal outright. It was an attractive offer, and since Hirosue was serious about his work, he would probably do well with Rokushima.

If they had been a man and a woman, things would have been more simple. The fact that they were both men seemed to create this barely-detectable barrier between them.

The man himself, the source of all of his mental troubles, was fast asleep in his lap. Matsuoka softly touched his ear. Hirosue’s shoulder twitched.

“You’re fake sleeping,” Matsuoka murmured. Hirosue guiltily opened his eyes.

“I was really asleep for part of the time.” The way he said it like an excuse made Matsuoka laugh.

“I never said fake sleeping was bad.”

Hirosue got up with a grunt, then drew Matsuoka close and sat him on his lap.

“You like this position, don’t you?” Matsuoka said casually. Hirosue blinked in surprise.

“Do I?”

You made me mount you like this yesterday, he thought of retorting, but didn’t.

“Yeah. You do.”

“Well, this way I can see your face properly.”

He was drawn closer. Their lips naturally met. Matsuoka felt like doing it, but Hirosue only kissed him and playfully nipped or licked his chin, and didn’t seem to be in the mood.

“―Why don’t you move back out here?”

“Hm?”

Matsuoka panicked at the words that had slipped unwittingly out of his mouth.

“Uh―nothing. Don’t worry about it.” He hastily tried to wave away his words. Hirosue watched him steadily. His gaze was not sharp. Although his eyes were gentle, Matsuoka felt too awkward to look at him back.

“Do you want me to move back here?”

Of course I do, he mentally shot back, but didn’t say it out loud. But it was true that he wanted Hirosue to move back. Should I say so clearly? But― Matsuoka’s public manners and honest feelings began to fight tooth and nail with each other in his head.

“Matsuoka?”

“―We can see each other every week, anyway. That’s enough for me.” His public manners slipped from his tongue with a face as cool as a cucumber. He was afraid Hirosue would read his mind if he looked at his face, so Matsuoka clung to Hirosue’s neck instead.

The following week after that exchange, Hirosue did not come out for the weekend. Matsuoka had assumed without question that Hirosue was coming, but had a foreboding feeling when Hirosue told him during their Thursday night phone call that he had an errand to run and could not come this week.

“Things have been busy at home, and we don’t have enough workers on hand.”

He had sounded genuinely sorry. Matsuoka had no intentions of doubting him, but… it made him want to. This was right after he had asked the man to move back out here last week. ‘But I come out every week. Isn’t that enough for you?’ he could imagine the man thinking. He felt like Hirosue found him bothersome.

“That’s too bad, then,” he relented easily without being too insistent, but inwardly Matsuoka was almost beside himself with agitation. Their conversation usually went on easily for one or two hours, but today, Hirosue wrapped up their conversation after thirty minutes, claiming he had something to take care of.

It can’t be helped. He has his own business. Matsuoka trusted Hirosue’s words, but at the same time, his mind was overtaken with dark memories. Once before, Matsuoka had experienced Hirosue blatantly trying to put distance between them. His e-mails had gone unanswered for regular intervals, which gradually got longer as the man gradually widened his distance.

His weekly visits would dwindle to once every two weeks, then three weeks; his phone calls would get shorter, and his e-mails would grow intermittent until they eventually died out―it made Matsuoka all the more afraid because he had experienced it before.

He almost wanted to call Hirosue back and ask him if he loved him. But he couldn’t. If he hadn’t wanted to come down because he was angry about the incident from the other day, he would probably find it even more annoying if Matsuoka called him again.

Hirosue was very kind when they were alone together. Matsuoka could tell the man was very attached to him. But as soon as they were apart, Matsuoka could no longer have confidence in anything anymore.

 

It was Friday, the day Hirosue usually came. Matsuoka felt like he would only think of needless things if he stayed alone, so he invited Shinozaki out for drinks. Then, a female subordinate of his also chimed in and said she wanted to go. Matsuoka agreed, since he wasn’t particularly fixated on the number of people. Soon, other people joined in, with a “me, too” “me, three”―in the end, their party grew to eight people.

They gave a toast with beer in a izakaya which had a good ambiance and tasty food for a reasonable price. Matsuoka had been prone to holing up in his apartment with Hirosue these days, and had not gone out for drinks in a while. It had been a while since he last experienced this kind of noisy atmosphere.

“It’s rare of you to be free on Friday, Chief.” Shinozaki already appeared to be tipsy from the beer, for his mouth was relaxed in a slack grin.

“Really?”

“He’s right,” Uemura jumped in from across. “These days you always go home early at the end of the week. Does your girlfriend always visit you on weekends?”

What?” A male worker exclaimed. “Chief, you have a girlfriend?”

“You didn’t know?” Uemura looked unperturbed. Apparently everyone else knew except for him, because no one appeared surprised.

“Chief is in a long-distance relationship. And he’s totally into his girlfriend,” Shinozaki spoke in an all-knowing tone. But Matsuoka had only told him that he was dating someone and that “she” was kind. Had he ever told him that it was long-distance?

“You tried to file a transfer request to a branch out of the city for your girlfriend, right?”

The group buzzed. What? No way. You must be lying.

“How do you know?” Matsuoka exclaimed. Shinozaki grinned slyly.

“Kato from HR is my smoking buddy.”

“Chief, are you going to leave headquarters?” said a female worker tearfully. Matsuoka hastily waved his right hand to negate her utterance.

“No, no, that won’t happen. Even if I sent in a request, it probably wouldn’t be accepted. And I have my work to do here.”

“You don’t have to go chasing after your girlfriend. Why don’t you bring her here and get married?”

As soon as the words were out of Shinozaki’s mouth, all of the female workers turned to glare daggers at him. Shinozaki didn’t seem to notice.

“Show us what she looks like,” he said excitedly. “You have pictures of her on your phone, don’t you?” He inched up to Matsuoka.

“No, I don’t.” Actually, he had secretly taken pictures of Hirosue sleeping because he found the man’s defenceless face cute. But he hadn’t told Hirosue, and he had no intentions of showing anyone else.

“Oh, come on. I know you have pictures.”

Shinozaki was being a persistent drunk today.

“I really don’t. She’s really shy about those things.”

“―She’s pretty, isn’t she?”

“Huh?”

“Your girlfriend must be pretty, Chief. I’m sure of it.” Shinozaki’s tone was decisive. When Matsuoka insisted she was average, he stubbornly shook his head. “Nope. She’s probably pretty. And―let me guess―she’s skinny, delicate, good at cooking and stuff, and cleans the house for you, right?”

Matsuoka smiled wryly and took a swig of the beer in his hand.

“I do the cooking, actually.”

“Chief, you cook?” Uemura asked in surprise.

“Just simple stuff.”

“Why do you need to cook? You should just get your girlfriend to cook for you,” Shinozaki said, sticking his lip out.

“Cooking isn’t really her forte, and when I cook it tastes better. She’s working, too, but still comes to my house every week. I don’t want to make her cook when she already takes so much time to come out here. I thought the least I could do was handle the cooking part.”

His real reason was to save money, but there was no need to give that information.

“Chief, you’re doing it on purpose, aren’t you?” Shinozaki growled in a low voice. His eyes were fixed sullenly on him.

“Doing what on purpose?”

“You’re good-looking, you’re good at your job, and you can cook! You’re too perfect!”

“I told you, I only cook because she’s not good at it.”

Shinozaki didn’t seem to be convinced, and kept tilting his head in perplexity.

Their drinking party ended just before ten o’clock. The food was good, and Matsuoka enjoyed the conversation. He felt like he’d start thinking of all sorts of things once he got home, but it was a relief to even forget it for a moment.

Although he had agreed to split the bill amongst everyone, Matsuoka instead collected two thousand yen from each person and paid for the rest. After they exited the restaurant, Uemura came up to him and lowered her head in apology.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I told Shinozaki I wanted to come along, and all these other people ended up coming along, too.”

“Don’t worry about it. I enjoyed myself.”

“I’m sorry,” Uemura apologized again, then gazed intently at him. “I’m so envious,” she murmured. “I get the feeling that your girlfriend is cherished very much.”

“Well, I’m the one that fell for her, so I’m always desperate not to get dumped.”

Uemura gave a brief smile. She looked like she was about to cry.

“What’re you two talking about?” Their conversation lapsed as Shinozaki came butting in. The group broke up as each went their separate ways in front of the restaurant. Matsuoka and Shinozaki, who were taking the same train line, walked to the station together.

Matsuoka’s body was warm at first from the alcohol, but he began to feel chilly as they walked. He put on the jacket he had been hanging on his arm. He could see Shinozaki beside him taking out a cigarette and lighting it. His nose twitched at the familiar smell.

“Say, Chief, you quit, right? I don’t know how you did it,” Shinozaki murmured as he let out a puff of white smoke.

“I still crave it sometimes.”

“Oh, would you like one?”

Matsuoka stopped Shinozaki as he began to rifle in his pocket.

“I can never quit for long,” Shinozaki said. “What’s the trick to it?”

“Well, I don’t know if there really is a trick to it. I guess for me, it was because my lover doesn’t smoke.”

“Whoa,” Shinozaki hunched his shoulders as he let out an exclamation of astonishment. “Did your girlfriend tell you to quit?”

“She didn’t say so, but since she doesn’t smoke herself, I figured she didn’t really like it, either.”

Shinozaki smiled with the cigarette still in his mouth.

“But don’t you get tired having to go out of your way for your girlfriend like that? Quitting smoking because she doesn’t smoke, or cooking for her because she’s bad at it?”

“Not really.” Matsuoka had never found it tiring. He was more afraid of things turning for the worse because he wasn’t careful enough.

They arrived at the station just as their train came gliding in, and they both made a run for it. Shinozaki got off after two stops, but Matsuoka had to stay on for six stops more.

He had jumped on the closest train car after the ticket gates since the train had been about to leave, but the car near the front was better for him when he got off at his condo. Matsuoka walked slowly through the rocking train.

It was relatively uncrowded. Matsuoka was gazing around for an empty seat when he spotted a familiar figure standing near the door with his back turned. He was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. Matsuoka’s heart fluttered. Could it be, he wondered as he stared, but it was hard to see his face since the man had his back turned to him.

The train stopped, and the man turned around as if to avoid the people trying to get of the train. It was Hirosue. There was no doubt about it. He had come down here even while saying he was busy with work at home.

The man had lied to him. Matsuoka’s mind went blank with the shock. Matsuoka inched backwards until he was standing near the junction between the cars, and faced the wall.

He knew the man told lies, and he knew Hirosue always tried to justify himself when things got inconvenient for him. Matsuoka had let his guard down completely because Hirosue hadn’t showed any signs of it after they started dating.

Despite the immovable fact that Hirosue had lied to him, Matsuoka still looked for a hopeful way out. Perhaps Hirosue was really busy, but had suddenly gotten some time off and come down to see him. Matsuoka opened his cell phone. He had gotten some casual e-mails from Hirosue in the morning, but not so much as a phone call after that.

Matsuoka gripped his cell phone. Perhaps Hirosue wasn’t contacting him because he had come in secret planning to surprise him. If so, Hirosue was a huge goof to be found out by him. Matsuoka could even go up to him to say hello, to prove it.

But he was too afraid. It was possible that Hirosue had come out to see him, but it was also possible that he hadn’t.

His suspicions came true when Hirosue got off at the station one stop before the one close to Matsuoka’s condo. Matsuoka could only stand in stunned silence at Hirosue’s retreating back as the train lurched back into motion.

After getting off the train and passing through the ticket gates, Matsuoka took out his cell phone. After a little hesitation, he pressed the button. The other end picked up after five rings.

“Hi, Matsuoka. What’s up?” Hirosue’s voice was no different from the usual.

“Um… nothing much. Do you have time to talk right now? What about work?”

“It’s over. What about you, Matsuoka?”

“I was drinking with some co-workers and I’m on the way home now. Are you at home, Hirosue?”

“Yeah. I’m thinking of going to bed soon.”

Another lie. There was no way Hirosue could be at home when he had gotten off at the station before him. Matsuoka looked at his feet. His despair deepened. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a car in the background from Hirosue’s end of the line.

“Are you outside right now? I heard a car pass by.”

There was a moment of silence on the other end.

“Oh, um. Yeah. I’m at a vending machine nearby, buying some beer.”

“You’re busy with work tomorrow, too, aren’t you? Make sure you don’t drink too much.” Matsuoka made a subtle gesture of kindness before quickly hanging up. He instantly regretted it. I should have grilled him and said I saw him on the train. I should have told him not to lie. He could have even… gotten angry, and even gotten into a fight. Couldn’t he?

As soon as he got home, Matsuoka flung his work bag aside and slumped heavily on his sofa. It wasn’t like the man had cheated on him; he was having an exaggerated reaction over a little lie. Hirosue probably had his own things that he wanted to do without being snooped on. But if that was the case, he wished Hirosue would have told him truthfully that he would come out, but would not be able to see him because he had plans. That would have convinced him to back off.

Lies and excuses. Everything tangled inside his head and coloured it black. I should just go to bed, he thought as he made his way to the bathroom sink. The second toothbrush jumped into his vision. He had put it there for Hirosue, who came every weekend. Just the sight of it made his heart ache, and Matsuoka turned on his heel and headed straight for the bedroom. He collapsed into bed, which seemed to carry Hirosue’s scent, too, and made tears fall from his eyes.

Unable to stand it anymore, Matsuoka sprang up, returned to the living room, and clawed at his phone. Without even giving himself a chance for second thoughts, he dialled Hirosue’s number.

“Hello?”

This time, the man answered after two rings. He didn’t have anything prepared in his head, since he had called on a whim―he had nothing other than interrogating questions.

“Matsuoka?”

He was even annoyed at himself. It was enough to make him feel sick.

“It’s Matsuoka, isn’t it? What’s wrong?” Hirosue’s voice was hesitant but gentle. That was why Matsuoka could not say anything.

“Oh, sorry. I thought you were someone from work,” he said brightly, suppressing the trembling in his voice. He could hear Hirosue laugh out loud on the other end.

“I didn’t think you were the clumsy type.”

“Sorry.”

“No problem. Thanks to that, I got to hear your voice twice today. Good night.”

Matsuoka also bid good night and hung up the phone. On one hand, Hirosue lied like it was nothing; on the other, he said such touching things it made him tremble with joy. Matsuoka didn’t know what to believe anymore. After lying on his stomach for some time, he dragged himself up and headed to the fridge. He took out a beer. He didn’t think he would be able to sleep tonight.

Continued in Part 3.

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