Every so often, Hope caught himself thinking that maybe Earth wasn't such a bad planet after all.
What did it matter what kind of a planet it was? He wasn't planning to build a vacation home here; he was trying to conquer it so that he could use its natural resources to restore his own planet, which was vastly superior to this backwater world. He didn't care if it was a nice place. He didn't care what the people were like, either, although in his experience they were mostly annoying.
Small children that made a lot of noise, shrill-voiced women arguing with cashiers, pushy salesmen who wouldn't take no for an answer, giggling office ladies who looked at him funny... all of them deserved to have their planet conquered, as far as he was concerned. And those Shinesmen! Didn't they understand that he was trying to do them a favor by taking over their planet through corporate dominance instead of military force? They'd become citizens of his empire like all the rest of the earthlings, and Voice had been a great civilization before the current problems began.
...and then, there were people like Matsumoto.
"Sasaki-kun! Hey, Sasaki-kun!"
Sekito had informed him that morning that a group from Right Trading would be meeting with some engineers from R&D. It just figured that Matsumoto had come along, and now, just when he'd thought he could go back to his quiet apartment and ignore all these annoying Earthlings, instead he was going to be subjected to Matsumoto's persistent efforts to "make friends". (Hope didn't get that at all. They worked for competing companies; sure, they might be cooperating now, but a few months down the line they might be bitter rivals for a big contract. ...then again, a guy like Matsumoto might not see any contradiction in being all buddy-buddy then, too.)
Rolling his eyes, Hope glanced over toward Matsumoto's pleading. One of the older office ladies had him by the collar, preventing him from getting past the reception desk now that his business was over, and the other, younger women were watching with what Hope felt was entirely inappropriate amusement.
"...did you want something, Matsumoto-kun?"
"Well, since I was here... I wondered if you wanted to come over for dinner." When Hope didn't answer, he added, "Youta's over at mom's tonight, and the apartment just seems so empty when he's not in it."
Actually, that was an appealing idea. Matsumoto could cook. Hope subsisted mostly on takeout and instant ramen. He scowled at Matsumoto anyway. "You're inviting me over to dinner because you miss your kid brother?"
As usual, Matsumoto hardly seemed to notice any discouragement, though he shook his head and replied, "No, I'm inviting you over for dinner because I'd like your company."
The thing that always undid him, that made him give in even though he didn't want an Earthling for a friend, was the fact that Matsumoto didn't have the foggiest idea that he was a prince, so that couldn't possibly be the reason why he kept making offers like that.
And if he was perfectly honest with himself, he'd have to admit that he wanted to accept the offer. Matsumoto was weird even for an Earthling, and his sunny disposition could get annoying, but whenever he'd let himself be dragged into hanging around with the guy, he had enjoyed himself.
"Okay?" Matsumoto's smile, if possible, brightened.
"Okay. Let's go."
He was mostly agreeing for the food, he told himself. Matsumoto's big dippy grin had nothing at all to do with it.
When they got into the apartment and had hung up their suit jackets, Matsumoto handed him a video game controller. "I thought maybe you'd want to play while I cook. We've got the new King of Fighters -- and after we eat we can play against each other." And he left Hope to play, disappearing into the small kitchen.
The funny thing was, once he'd gotten the hang of the game, he wasn't interested in playing by himself anymore.
He turned off the game, and headed into the kitchen. "What are you making, anyway?"
Matsumoto looked up from stirring something in a skillet. "Wha-- oh, Sasaki-kun. Nothing fancy, just beef bowls, and I've still got some onigiri from yesterday." It smelled like beef in the skillet, and the starchy smell of rice wafted from an electric cooker on the counter.
"I was just going to make instant ramen," Hope admitted, sitting down at the small table. "So anything home-cooked is better than that."
"Don't you know how to cook?"
"...I know how to call for takeout?"
Matsumoto reached over to turn off the rice cooker, and then got some dishes out of the cabinet. "Doesn't that get expensive?"
It would get him a lecture from Sony, if he indulged too much. Also it got just as monotonous as the instant stuff, after a while, and the instant stuff was faster and cheaper and less trouble. "Well, that's why I usually have instant instead."
"Next time, I'll teach you to cook," Matsumoto offered, obviously without putting much thought into it, but sincere all the same.
Next time? Hope tried to think of something to say that would express the fact that he hadn't agreed to a 'next time' without offending Matsumoto just when dinner was almost ready, but everything that came to mind sounded... ungrateful, which he wasn't. The food smelled good, and he didn't exactly mind Matsumoto's company.
He ended up not replying at all, and then dinner was ready. Matsumoto hummed something that Sasaki thought he might have heard on the radio as he turned off the stove, dished out the rice and beef into two bowls, and carried a plate of rice balls over to the table.
Both of them were hungry enough that they didn't talk much over dinner, busy inhaling their food instead. Matsumoto stacked their dishes in the sink, and they settled down on the couch to play King of Fighters. After a few practice rounds, and a spirited discussion (after Matsumoto's brief explanation of some of the characters for Hope, who didn't really know that much about video games on Earth) about which one of them ought to be Kyo and which Iori, ending in jan ken pon to settle the argument, Hope declared he was ready to kick Matsumoto's ass.
"Best two out of three wins, and treats the other to sushi after the next meeting."
"Deal," Matsumoto agreed. He'd ended up as Kyo.
Hope won the first match almost without any effort. Matsumoto barely managed a victory in the second... then came back from a one-sided pounding to win the third.
"Mmm, spider roll and salmon and fatty tuna and abalone and..."
"I don't think that fire thing he does is fair. Let's switch and do it over -- best three out of five, so it won't just be luck."
Matsumoto caved after a little while, and they swapped off characters. Hope won two, then proceeded to lose three in a row.
"Eel, mackerel, some more eel, octopus," Matsumoto sing-songed cheerfully.
"Five out of seven!"
They were up to something like nine out of eleven -- or maybe it was thirteen out of... fifteen, something... Hope had lost count -- when they realized how late it was.
"You can stay here again," Matsumoto said with a yawn. "And I think one of my suits will fit you."
Hope was too tired to protest now that they'd stopped playing and realized the time. If he went home, he'd have gotten even less sleep. Matsumoto lent him pajamas again, too, and set up the futons, and as late as it was, they couldn't afford to stay up any longer.
"Thanks for inviting me," Hope remembered to say, a few minutes after they laid down.
"Thanks for coming, Sasaki-kun."
In the middle of the night, Hope woke up, as he often did, and after a few moments of disorientation, he remembered where he was. Matsumoto lay sound asleep on the other futon beside him, curled on his side and almost reaching toward him. (No, that was silly, it was probably just the most comfortable place to put his arm.)
Watching his sleeping face and the slow, even rhythm of his breathing made Hope think again about his huge, mostly empty quarters in the palace, and then his small, mostly empty apartment on Earth. Even though Matsumoto was asleep, and not really any kind of company when he was just lying there, Hope didn't feel like he was alone.
That was silly. He was tired, and thinking nonsense things, and he had better go back to sleep, because he was going to be dead enough in the morning already.
...maybe Earth wasn't such a bad planet after all.