"Hey, old man!" Eiji called, ignoring Ono's disapproving look. Of course, the fact that Ono's disapproval was an imperfect mask for his amusement might have had something to do with why Eiji had never bothered to curb his rudeness.
Tachibana gritted his teeth. "What?"
"You think I could go early tonight? I've got this thing."
Eiji was almost jittering with suppressed excitement, and Tachibana narrowed his eyes. "Are you haring off to France again?"
"No," Eiji said. "Jeez, I'd give you a little more warning if I were doing something like that."
Which Tachibana knew, really, but Eiji had never asked to be let go early before. And Eiji wouldn't refer to a personal emergency as a "thing," so it wasn't a completely illogical leap to go from an evening off to a weekend in France. Despite knowing his employee pretty well by this point, Tachibana honestly couldn't imagine why else he would have made his request. Unless...
"Do you have a date?"
"Nah," Eiji said. Then he thought a moment. "Well, yeah, kind of. I guess you could call it a date."
Ono didn't look shocked at Eiji's revelation, so they'd obviously been gossiping in the kitchen again. Tachibana hid his own surprise behind a mask of disinterest. After an all too brief period of thinking of Eiji as a starry-eyed kid, he'd been forced to reevaluate and start thinking of him as a ladykiller who bizarrely had no interest in the ladies. And now Eiji was going out with a woman on a Thursday, and Tachibana didn't know if he was supposed to tease him or encourage him or ignore the whole situation. His brief stab of jealousy at being the only one in the bakery who couldn't get a date, now that Chikage was gone, finally decided the matter.
"Did you take out the trash, at least?"
"Ten minutes ago. Right under your nose. Don't tell me you need prescription glasses, now, too."
"You know, insulting me probably isn't the best way to get me to agree to your request," Tachibana pointed out. Instantly, Eiji's face assumed a mock-respectful expression. Ono hid a giggle behind his hand.
Tachibana sighed. "Fine. If Ono doesn't need you for anything else, you're free to go."
Eiji turned a more persuasively respectful face towards Ono, who smiled and said, "This is the last tray I needed to prepare tonight, and I can easily finish it myself. Go right ahead, Kanda. Have fun!"
"Thanks, Ono-sensei! See you later, old man!" Eiji stripped off his apron and jacket and dropped them in the laundry basket, grabbed his backpack, and was out the door in less than two minutes.
Tachibana made an annoyed sound, now that Eiji wasn't around to be witness to his disgruntlement.
"He wouldn't make fun of you if he didn't feel comfortable around you," Ono said.
"You mean, he wouldn't make fun of me if he weren't an obnoxious little brat," Tachibana corrected.
Ono's face broke into a smile. "Well, yes, that, too."
Tachibana shook his head. It was a lucky thing that Eiji idolized Ono, or there really would be no living with him.
There was paperwork to do after the Antique closed, but Tachibana uncharacteristically decided that most of it could wait until the following day. He locked up the bakery and set out for his apartment. He usually had dinner as soon as he came home from work, but he didn't feel like cooking quite yet. Instead, he sank down onto his sofa and flipped through the channels until he reached the news.
Five minutes later, there was a knock on the door.
"Hi," Eiji said when Tachibana answered it. "Happy birthday."
Tachibana stared at him.
"I brought you something," Eiji continued, lifting one of the covered plastic trays they used for deliveries, and Tachibana remembered himself enough to invite Eiji into his apartment.
Eiji made unerringly for the kitchen, where he began to unpack his present. "Ono-sensei's been teaching me how to make some savory dishes. These are petites quiches lorraines, and these are crepes filled with gruyere and mushrooms, and this is tomato aspic--which is gross, by the way, but Ono-sensei swears you like it--and these are croissants with a special shrimp filling created by Ono-sensei. Oh, and sensei chipped in with me to get you this," Eiji said, drawing an expensive bottle of single malt whiskey out of his coat pocket. "I made some extra food for Chikage, too, since he's always coming over here."
"Even for two people, this is a lot of food," Tachiban observed.
"Well...I was thinking that if you didn't want to be alone for your birthday, I could eat dinner with you. It's okay if you don't want to, though."
To Tachibana's surprise, it actually sounded like a fine idea, and he soon had the two of them settled at his table with a beer for Eiji and a tumbler of whiskey for himself. The food was incredible, and Eiji accepted Tachibana's grudging praise with a pleased smile.
"I assume Ono told you when my birthday was?" Tachibana said.
Eiji shook his head. "Chikage did."
"And he kept all this a secret?" Tachibana asked incredulously.
"Ono told him that there wasn't any point in making you a birthday cake, since you didn't like sweets," Eiji said. "We didn't tell him about your present. Though I'm pretty sure that Ono wants the four of us to go out for lunch tomorrow, so that Chikage won't feel left out."
"I get to pick the restaurant," Tachibana said immediately, because he knew his employees, and even his birthday might not be enough reason to make them act like civilized human beings.
"Well, duh," Eiji said.
Tachibana rolled his eyes. No doubt they'd have an argument over the restaurant tomorrow, anyway. "Even without involving Chikage, I'm surprised that the two of you managed to hide this from me. I was really convinced that you had a date." Or was leaving for France, but Tachibana continued to assert that that wasn't so farfetched an idea.
"Yeah, about that," Eiji said, and then paused for a long moment, staring at Tachibana's wall. "Look, you know how I don't date women anymore?" he asked finally, and waited for Tachibana's answer, as though anyone could forget his young, cute employee inexplicably admitting to celibacy.
"Yes," Tachibana said.
"Well, it really is true that I don't miss sex. But I've been realizing, you know, that the only real friend I have is my adopted father. Well, and Ono-sensei, but sensei's always busy with his boys when he's not at the bakery, and anyway, we don't have very much in common."
"You and I don't have very much in common, either," Tachibana pointed out.
"We're both alone," Eiji said quietly.
Tachibana's heart started hammering wildly in his chest. At first it really had sounded as though Eiji were only looking for a friend--absurd though it might be that he would consider Tachibana for the role--but now it sounded as though... "You could date Ono," he said desperately, thinking of nothing but how to get Eiji to stop considering him as a candidate for a romantic relationship.
Eiji shook his head. "I'm not his type, remember?"
"You're not my type, either."
"That's not true," and before Tachibana could argue that it most certainly was, Eiji started ticking off points on his fingers. "You don't want to have sex with men, and I'm not interested in sex at all. You wouldn't expect me to do romantic things for you, which is good, because I'm awful at that kind of stuff. You don't mind that I work long hours and that I'd rather bake than do anything else. And...you trust me. I think."
All of which was undeniably true, and some of the tight, panicked feeling started to leave Tachibana's chest. "So, you're proposing that we enter a relationship together, but you don't want to do anything...physical."
Eiji shrugged. "I wouldn't mind kissing you, I think, but we don't have to do that if you don't want to. And I'm okay with sleeping with you--I mean really sleeping, not sex--if that would make you...happy."
Tachibana truly was going to figure out a way to stop Chikage from spreading details about his personal life someday.
Eiji looked at the expression on his face and said, very quietly, "I dream about boxing sometimes. Or about being left behind. One's a happy dream and the other's sad, but they both make me cry."
Eiji was almost obstreperously honest, but he also had a tendency to avoid talking about himself, and Tachibana found himself oddly touched by this quiet revelation, which Eiji had shared for no other reason than to lessen Tachibana's embarrassment. "Hold still," he said, standing up and crossing to Eiji's side of the table. Eiji looked at him with curious eyes, but did as Tachibana had asked, which was good. Tachibana didn't think that he could do this, otherwise.
He placed one hand on the back of Eiji's chair to steady himself and leaned down to press their lips together. Eiji's mouth was soft and warm and tasted faintly of gruyere, all of which were fine things in Tachibana's book. There was some small part of him that was panicking over kissing another man, but Eiji didn't try to grab him or even to deepen the kiss, and slowly Tachibana felt himself relax.
"Okay, we can try it," Tachibana said when he finally broke the kiss, and when Eiji smiled at him, Tachibana let himself smile back.