Shuuji always turns his cellphone off during class. It makes him a little nervous to be unreachable when Koji's home alone, but his father's promised to always leave his own phone on, and it's not as though Shuuji would make the best first responder in an emergency, anyway, given that he's in Tokyo and Koji's in Okayama. He has to rush to catch the train from his last class or risk waiting another half-hour, and after Shuuji's settled himself in his seat, he turns on his cellphone to check for any messages and missed calls. One from his mother, who often forgets what time he's sleeping, let alone attending class; one from Yoshitaka; and four from Akira. Shuuji's stomach clenches painfully.
It's marginally less frightening than it would be to have that many messages from Koji or his father or Nobuta--who rarely leaves one message, let alone four--but that's not very reassuring when Shuuji's heart is in his throat and his hands are shaking faintly. He bypasses his voicemail to call Akira back immediately, and Akira's excited "Shuuji!" when he answers his phone on the first ring is enough to loosen the tight feeling in his throat. "Where are you? What are you doing? Why've you been ignoring me?" Akira continues, one question following the other without even a pause for breath, let alone Shuuji's reply.
Shuuji takes a deep breath, what feels like the first since he saw the message notifications on the screen, and waits. When it's obvious that Akira's done for the moment, he says, "I wasn't ignoring you; I've been in class all day. I'm on the train home right now."
"Usually you call me back earlier," Akira says, his pout audible.
"Usually I have some free time during lunch," Shuuji explains. "But today I had to meet with some people for a group project. When I looked at my phone and saw all those missed calls from you, I called you back right away. I didnít get to check any of the messages you left me first because I was worried. Are you okay? What did your messages say?"
"I'm fine," Akira says automatically, and Shuuji frowns. Akira's never fine; he's happy or excited or amused or even, much less frequently, miserable. For him to say that he's fine almost guarantees that he isn't.
"Akira?" he asks, his worry evident even to his own ears, and Akira says in a rush:
"Shuuji, I canít be me here."
Shuuji waits a moment for him to elaborate, and, when he doesn't, waits a little longer to figure out the right thing to say. Akira rarely needs advice--at least, none beyond "No, don't mix those foods together, that's disgusting," which he usually disregards anyway--so Shuuji doesn't have a lot of practice in giving it. But he knows what he's been telling himself every day as he goes to school alone, with Nobuta in California and Akira in an office, feeling as though the most important parts of himself have gone away, too, or maybe just fallen asleep with no one to recognize and engage them. "Finish your work first," he says, "and, after that, you can always come back home and be Akira again."
"Oh," Akira says. He sucks in a noisy breath. "But, Shuuji, what if I forget who Akira is?"
"Then I or Nobuta or Hirayama-san or Delphine will remind you. The work you're doing is important, but it's not you. You won't get lost in it accidentally. We won't let you."
"There's another problem. I have to have a phone conference with a big Chinese company in a few minutes. My dad's section chief thinks I should threaten them, but I'm not sure I can do that from all the way over here, and, besides, I don't really want to. I thought about breaking my phone accidentally, but they'd only bring me another and make me have the conference anyway," Akira confesses breathlessly.
Shuuji nods and carefully doesn't ask who the Chinese company is or why they might or might not need to be threatened; Akira doesn't seem to worry much about corporate espionage, so Shuuji does his worrying for him and doesn't press for unnecessary details. "That does sound complicated," he admits. "But you don't have to figure it out all right away. Talk to the company first and find out what's wrong on their end, and if it's something that can't be fixed immediately, stall them so you can consider all your options. You could even ask for your father's advice if you really needed to. I know you want him to rest as much as possible, but all the doctors say he's doing much better; it won't set back his recovery to answer one question."
"No," Akira says firmly. "That's okay. I can do this, Shuuji."
"Of course you can. And, afterwards, if you're not too busy tonight, you could come to my apartment and have dinner with me. I only have a little reading to do for tomorrow, so you wouldn't be any trouble."
"I could do that! I think. No, yes, I definitely can."
Shuuji laughs a little, already starting to plan what he'd need to buy at the store. "I'll be waiting."
"Okay, Shuuji. I'll see you soon," Akira says and hangs up, sounding almost like himself again, despite the impending conference with the Chinese company.
For a moment, Shuuji wishes fiercely that they could have lived together this summer as they'd planned, but there's no way they could have made it work. Keio's Hiyoshi campus is an hour and a half from Akira's father's office when there's no wait for connecting trains, and over two hours when there is one. Even if they'd gotten an apartment at the midway point, neither of them has the time to make that sort of commute regularly, with Shuuji taking two accelerated summer classes and Akira struggling to acquire the equivalent of a business degree and several years' experience by throwing himself headfirst into running a multimillion-yen corporation that employs hundreds of people.
They see each other almost every Sunday, though, and today's a Wednesday and they're meeting for dinner anyway. It's not a totally hopeless situation, even if it'll be better in the fall when they're roommates in one of the Keio dorms.
There are still four stops before Shuuji has to get off the train, and he calls his voicemail system. The messages from his mother and Yoshitaka he saves for later, when he has time to return their calls.
"Shuuji," Akira whines in his ear. "Shuuji, everyone here wears the exact same thing every day and when I sneeze fifty people all hand me tissues at the same time. I only need one! They should have more clothes and less Kleenex and not the other way around."
Personally, Shuuji thinks that Akira could stand to have more Kleenex, rather than waving off anyone handing out tissues on the street with the assurance that he never gets sick, which is a complete and utter lie. Also, men who go to work wearing their father's suits that strain across the shoulders and aren't quite long enough in the leg don't have much room to criticize other people's sartorial choices. He wonders how Akira would respond to the suggestion that they go clothes shopping; he looks just barely acceptable in his father's suits, but ones tailored to fit him would probably be breathtaking.
The second message begins with familiar content. "I have to talk to Chinese people today, ne. The only Chinese I know is ni hao and I donít think they'll let me say just that the whole time without getting mad." Shuuji lets out an involuntary snort of laughter, covering his mouth quickly, and almost misses the conclusion: "My computer is probably haunted."
Knowing Akira, that could mean anything from "I have a computer virus," to "My responsibilities scare me, which is obviously the fault of an inanimate machine rather than the fact that hundreds of people are depending on me for their livelihoods," to "My father's deleted solitaire, and I don't know how to get it back." Shuuji makes note to figure out which of those is the real explanation that night, so that Akira doesn't inadvertently let a computer virus eat all of his father's important business files, and goes on to the next message.
"Shuuji. Shuuji, sometimes my eyeballs itch and the only way to make them stop is to close them. Am I going blind? Or bald, maybe? There's a funny old man who's bald that's sitting across from me in the meeting hall and he keeps squinting at me like he wants to close his eyes, too. Do you think he has the same thing I do?"
For the sake of Akira's father's employees, Shuuji hopes that their bonuses are extra-large this year.
The last message is in a whisper from beginning to end. If anyone but Akira had left it, Shuuji wouldn't have been able to hear it at all over the sound of the train. Even in Akira's noisy whisper, he has to listen to the message twice through to get all of it. "Shuuji, let's start a band. If we start a band, then maybe we can run on the beach all day wearing cool clothes and sing as loud as we want. Do you know any guys who look like girls?"
Having heard Akira's singing voice, Shuuji's pretty sure that they'd make a very unpopular band if they really did sing as loud as they wanted, but there's something undeniably attractive about the idea of getting paid to look like they're having fun. As long as the two of them were together, he doesn't even think there'd be any acting involved.
He almost calls Akira to leave a message on his voicemail, but Akira has an unfortunate tendency to leave his phone on even when he shouldn't, such as during important business meetings. Shuuji refuses to encourage Akira's careless work habits. So, instead, he types out a quick text message even as he's shuffling closer to the door in preparation for his exit at the next stop: No guys who look like girls, but I know a girl who looks like a girl. You and I can play the guitar, and Nobuta can play the drums. Pick up dessert from the bakery on your way over, okay?
The small chime signaling a response comes much too quickly from someone who's supposed to be paying attention in a business meeting, and Shuuji sighs a little despite the smile that he can't quite prevent from tugging at his mouth. He slips his phone out of his pocket to read Akira's newest message: No cake for Shuuji, because he doesn't like it. Custard pies are good? You get to be lead singer.