It is the day before his wedding when he casually slips out that he had once dated Echizen.
They are drunk and bawdy. He had spared no expenses and invited everyone that mattered, and he had flown them over to Okinawa where his beach resort had been prepared for the imminent party and wedding. People are swaying to the loud music and dancing on tables. His old teammates are huddling in a corner, and somehow Echizen is there, along with a few remnants of Seigaku, and they are bantering, sneering, boasting of past conquests and laughing at failed misdeeds.
It must have been Mukahi or Shishido, he thinks later, when he is sober and remorse and his heart empty, but there is a mention of Kikumaru and Oishi: "Were they ever an item?"
Momoshiro is calling for another beer when he is rudely called back to affirm this fact. His long hair is ridiculous, swinging back and forth as he turns and frowns. "What?"
"Your upperclassmen," Mukahi repeats, already a bit drunk, "Christ. Do I have to repeat everything today? Were they fucking?"
Momoshiro gawks and turns red, hollering and defending his teammates' honor with incomprehensible words. Shishido sighs and polishes off another shot.
"We could just. Ask them," he slurs, "I mean, they'll be here somewhere."
"Good idea, Ryou." Mukahi snickers and is about to do just that, but something in his haze stops him; he tilts his head and swings violently forward. "Woah. Woah. Okay. Never mind, it doesn't matter. It's totally true anyway."
"They weren't gay." Momoshiro sounds miserable now; he had failed them and their honor.
Mukahi laughs. "Sure, sure. They were. Experimenting, yeah? Is that what you'd call it? Oi, Atobe, what would you call it?"
He is swirling his drink, not yet drunk but not completely sober, staring out into space and watching Echizen from the corner of his eye.
"Earth to Atobe-sama!"
"Shut up, Gakuto," he says, "Don't bring me into one of your inane arguments."
"Make him lighten up, Yuushi," Mukahi leans back, his eyes rolling back. "Keigo should know," he says to the audience that exempts him, "Keigo went to boarding school. Don't you know about experimenting?"
He closes his eyes and takes another sip. The slow burn trickles in his throat. "I was in elementary school back then."
"Not the point," Mukahi sings, and waves his hands; a waiter comes by and fills his glass. "Not the fucking point. Keigo, take another shot, maybe that'll loosen you up."
Echizen doesn't touch his drink but his pack of cigarettes are almost empty; his fingers are thin and nimble, caressing the small, thin stick between the juncture of his fingers and his eyes are downcast. He looks bored and Atobe hates him for looking bored.
He finishes his glass and hands over the empty cup to the waiter. "Yes, experimenting, whatever you want to call it."
"And has Atobe Keigo ever?" Mukahi is having fun, it is a harmless fun, his eyes are bright and glowing; he will forget about this in the morning, he will not mention it. It is a careless night with careless mistakes with full redemption guaranteed.
"Atobe-san is getting married tomorrow," Momoshiro interjects weakly, but Atobe rises over those words; he doesn't need pathetic defenses.
"Of course I have," he says, cool, as if these things come and go, never of consequence, "Echizen knew one or more things besides tennis."
He speaks as if Echizen is not there and it is comfortable, somewhat; Echizen is a stranger and a observer to his voice, a small delusion before Echizen's head rises, his cigarette smoke wafting around the air he breathes.
There is a shriek. "What!"
"You never said!"
Momoshiro looks at Echizen and his gaze is wide and his face white. There is more squawking, but Echizen heeds none of that. He doesn't look shocked or betrayed; he gives him a careful look and a smirk a moment later.
"Hmm. Yeah, I guess I did, didn't I?"
There is a stunned silence for a moment; everyone has woken up from a hazy stupor and now their small crowd sits up, alert and wary. Behind them, the party roars and moves, while they are frozen in time.
"Well," Oshitari finally says, "Well."
"Well, the fuck," Mukahi curses loudly, and lifts his drink, finishes it off in one gulp. "Shit, I need more."
His eyes cannot leave the hazel orbs that flicker with the dim lamps. They do not convey anything; it has been a long time since he ever tried to read them. Echizen does not look away but inhales his cigarette slowly, lets it out, blows. His lips are curved without humor but he doesn't look irritated. Atobe feels it safe to elaborate.
"It ended horribly, of course."
"It wasn't even fun after awhile, was it?"
"You," Echizen drawls, and his drawl is slow and pleasant, languid with slow laughter, "were a horrible kisser. I expected better."
Atobe rolls his eyes at that, and Echizen laughs, and his empty laugh fills the void of their petrified crowd, and it is this laugh that makes Momoshiro blink and start, "Shit. Echizen, you utter brat! You never said!"
"Didn't feel the need." Echizen shrugs, and he leans back into his seat again, but those eyes are still locked with his, "Besides, no need to make a scandal, monkey king's getting married tomorrow."
He doesn't know why that should resonate with him and leave him bitter.
He finds Echizen later, when everyone disperses into their rooms and sleep their way until the wedding that is to be held in the late afternoon. Echizen is leaning back against the wall, and he is still smoking, a curl of smoke wrapping around his thin body and creating his own world within.
He clears his throat and steps near, but Echizen doesn't start or look surprised. He rummages his pockets though, and offers him the nearly empty pack.
He shakes his head. "I don't smoke."
"I know." Echizen grins, boyish, but he doesn't pocket the pack. "I thought I'd show some manners."
"What a day to show it," he says wryly.
"Hey, I can behave if I want." He breathes in slow, and lets out another wisp of weak smoke. "Didn't you see me behave earlier?"
"Yes, shocking. Marvelous, really."
He pauses. Echizen doesn't offer to lead any words; he is content to smoke, and if he doesn't speak, they will stand there in silence and everything will scatter and nothing will piece itself. "I'm sorry, though. I didn't plan on saying it. About us."
A shrug. "Whatever. It doesn't matter."
"Still." He tries to lift up a smile and fails, so he presses his lips together instead. "It must have caught you by surprise."
"Well," Echizen says, and pauses. Another shrug, but this time the shrug is a half-jerk: frustration is crawling on his face. "It was a long time ago. And besides," here, Echizen's smirk is better than his, "I guess I deserved that. You know. We parted too nicely."
"I parted too nicely, you mean." He says the words before his mind registers them and regrets it a moment later. He looks away while Echizen continues to smoke and his words meander between them.
"Yeah," Echizen says, "Yeah, that. You sure you don't want a smoke?" He pulls one out before he can protest. "It's the last one. It'll give you good luck for your wedding."
He takes it and Echizen fumbles for the light. His hand is shaking, and the light doesn't stick.
"Hold steady," Echizen says, but he doesn't sound irritated, and he patiently clicks a few more times until the fire glows at the tip of his smoke. "There. Blow in and out."
"I know how." He takes the first drag, and the smoke fills his mouth and moves to his throat and suffocates him with unwanted air. He coughs and sputters.
"This is repulsive."
"I know," Echizen laughs; he sounds like a child. "You really can't smoke, can you?"
"Repulsive," he repeats. He doesn't throw away the smoke though.
"Here, let me." Echizen leans forward, and he offers the stick; Echizen closes his eyes, his own stick dangling carelessly between his thumb and forefinger, and he inhales and exhales perfectly. He opens his eyes and smirks. "See? Child's play."
"Are you seeing anyone?" He doesn't know why he is asking this now, but Echizen answers easily.
"Yeah. Loads. Going here and there."
"No." There is amusement smearing over his words now; with each answer he is deliberately weaving a joke. "I'm not like you."
"You were," he says, again without much thought. It is the alcohol, he tries to defend, the haze, the fog. The smoke, ruining his brain and his words.
Echizen doesn't reply to that immediately and his eyes sag. His lips thin and fingers fumble for his own smoke. When he finds his words, the words are lagging and worn. "Don't start."
"I'm not." He waits, and adds, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to."
"Don't apologize." Again, the tired voice and another drag. "You never apologized."
"Yeah, you have. Not like today, though."
There is one time he had: before they went their separate, shattered ways, he had demanded what was wrong, and when Echizen refused to answer he had cajoled, and later, he had apologized for things he did not know what he did wrong. It did not change them, and years later, he is still standing there, hoping that apologies could revert the past.
"I know." He pauses, and fails to conjure up words.
"I saw your fiancée. She seems nice. Decent."
"And well-off, yes."
"Yeah." The light voice is back and there is even good cheer in them. "Perfect for you, really. You could have spoiled brats running over your castle now."
"It's too early for that," he says wearily. His smile finally succeeds, and he gestures his hand outwards, away from them. "I should get back."
"Yeah. You should sleep. And smoke." Echizen pointedly looks at his unfinished cigarette. He laughs quietly and is about to turn. Something whispers to him to ask, once more though: "Ryoma."
That surprises him too, but all Echizen does is tilt his head and show that he is listening without meeting eyes.
"What you did, back then." He is glad his voice is not choked; the smoke had not ruined him, after all. "Were you really tired of us?"
Echizen's lips are white, and for a good instance his eyes flare and he looks angry, but those same eyes flicker out as soon as they come and all he is left with is a fake smirk and lightheartedness once more. "Of course I was," he drawls, "You're terrible to get along with, Keigo."
He smiles. Before he turns and walks away, he lets his hand reach out and touch Echizen's wrist; his fingers brush against the jutting joint.
"You make a terrible liar." Is what he says; what he means is left unspoken.
He walks before he can see Echizen's face, and as he walks he lifts the abandoned cigarette to his lips and breathes in slowly, letting the smoke sink in deep. He lets it out and the smoke is like their last kiss.