Backstage – Part One

Tezuka and Atobe meet while out fishing, in the Spring of their third year of high school. Conversation, verbal jousting, poetry, philosophy, angst, dramatics and humor ensue. Drama with Budding Romance, I-3

Well, wasn’t this just a fine thing?

When Atobe Keigo wanted to get away from the duties and expectations of his game, his team, his opponents, he had a particular place to go. An isolated little bite out of the lakeshore where none of those things would follow. And now he saw all of them reflected at him in Tezuka Kunimitsu’s eyes. If the fishing paraphernalia spread out comfortably around this slightly overgrown grove was any indication, his best rival already had the place staked out for a long day. He had excellent taste, if execrable timing. Keigo took a few deep breaths; he would not, he told himself strenuously, scream with frustration. No matter how cathartic it might be just now. He had an image to maintain, even if Tezuka didn’t usually believe it.

Tezuka’s startled gaze fell on Keigo’s equipment and sharpened. He tipped his head to one side.

“Do you come here to fish, too?”

Keigo raised a brow. Too? Come to think of it, he had seen plenty of signs that someone else liked to fish at this place. He hadn’t thought much about it, except to be pleased that their schedules never seemed to overlap. He certainly hadn’t imagined that his unofficial timeshare partner might be Tezuka.

“Yes,” he answered at last, gathering himself to go look for another spot as graciously as possible. It took a fair degree of gathering, and Tezuka beat him to the punch.

“There’s room for both of us, if you don’t mind,” he offered, quietly.

Keigo accepted, stifling his surprise. It occurred to him, as Tezuka gathered his things to one side, that he’d definitely been out-gracious-ed, but he let it slide in the interest of peaceful fishing. Tezuka didn’t seem like the sort to practice competitive graciousness, in any case.

In fact, the edge of competition was completely lacking in Tezuka’s manner today. The absence was a bit jarring, Keigo mused as he laid out his things. He and Tezuka rarely encountered each other except on the court, and their personal competition was everything, there. Keigo loved it. Tennis was almost always entertaining, of course, but with Tezuka… Tezuka’s intensity washed away all the extraneous bits that usually occupied Keigo’s attention. The crowd, the future, the presentation, they all faded, and nothing mattered but the moment and the ball drawing lines in the air between them.

They’d learned, over the last few years, to bring seconds along, even for their unofficial matches. Once they were absorbed in the game only exceptional intervention, such as, say, a car crashing into the court, would induce either one to back down before the final score was decided. It wasn’t uncommon for them to leave so exhausted neither of them could walk a straight line without help.

This present still calm was , ironically, not helping his peace of mind, Keigo reflected as he cast his line out.

And how was Tezuka taking it? A sidelong glance showed him focused on the water as if it were a meditation garden. Keigo decided to take the opportunity to indulge his curiosity, and looked closer.

Tezuka’s stillness was nothing new. The quality of stillness wrapped around him even in the middle of a hard game; it was one of the things that often intimidated his opponents. It was a good tactic, and Keigo smirked every time he saw it used on someone else. There was something, though. Something in the line of his shoulders, and the set of his hands.

After a long moment it finally came to Keigo. Tezuka was relaxed.

Not the waiting whipsnap that fatally deceived so many on the court, but really relaxed. Keigo was not much given to introspection, at least not when he could help it, but one particular conclusion hit him hard enough to knock his breath out.

Keigo came here to find a little stability, a restful, solid time when he didn’t have to worry about balancing the needs and quirks of his team against the ruthless demands of their coach. Here, he didn’t have to deal with the annoyance of some uppity little hotshot after his position. He didn’t have to listen to his father casually mentioning the statistics on how many youthful tennis stars completely failed as professionals, and thank God for Grandfather, that was all Keigo had to say. He didn’t have to be arrogant enough to prop up the egos of two hundred odd mediocre players. He could be quiet. He could be lackadaisical. He could be abrasive or not, as he pleased. He could, in short, relax.

Tezuka clearly came here for pretty much all the reasons that Keigo himself did. It was an insight he really felt he could have done without. Not least because it immediately presented the question of whether the flash of understanding was mutual.

“There’s no audience here, Atobe, you don’t have to stay in character just to play to me.” Tezuka’s voice held a hint of impatience, as he glanced over, and Keigo realized abruptly how much he’d focused on Tezuka for the past few minutes. Of course he’d noticed.

And, Keigo supposed, that answered that question. He turned his attention to his line. He wasn’t sure today would be a relaxed day for him, but at least he was distracted from his regular problems.

Five minutes later he was studying Tezuka again. Fish were less demanding, but they weren’t as interesting.

He had known already that Tezuka used his reserve to conceal his intensity. It now appeared that he also concealed a certain… softness? tolerance? Keigo sighed to himself, because now his curiosity was engaged. And, after his pride, curiosity was probably his second strongest driving force. Well, if he was going to indulge it, he might was well do so with flair. What would be a good approach to stir up some revelations? Hm…

“Do you ever wish you had chosen a different front?” he asked. Tezuka eyed him, and he decided to prod a little harder. “Not that it isn’t an effective one, the stone silence does emphasize your command presence nicely, but don’t you ever get tired of it? Face get stiff?”

One of these days, Keigo told himself as Tezuka’s brows rose, it would probably be a good idea to restrain his sense of humor. It had gotten him in trouble before. In fact, it was the source of most of his bad reputation, including the part that held he couldn’t possibly have a sense of humor because one person couldn’t fit that and his ego too.

Tezuka was not, however, looking offended. He looked, insofar as Keigo could decipher his typically minimalist expression, thoughtful.

“Do you?” he bounced the question back. Keigo read a certain censure in the sharpness of his voice, and snorted.

“If you had as many people to deal with as I do, you would have chosen a front that afforded you some amusement into the bargain, too,” he declared.

“It amuses you to annoy people?” Tezuka inferred.

Keigo smiled. “Infinitely.”

“It amuses you to toy with people?”

“Provided they’re worth toying with,” Keigo specified, leaning back on his elbows. Tezuka reeled his line back in.

“If you want an honest answer to your question, Atobe, give me an honest answer to mine.”

“That was honest, Tezuka. I enjoy frustrating people who don’t realize that I am toying with them. If that fact itself also amuses me, that doesn’t make it any less true.” He tipped his head back to look up through the leaves. “You must know what it’s like. To be the best without a regular challenge. What’s worthwhile then?” Tezuka was silent for a minute before he spoke, in a meditative tone.

“There are times you remind me of Fuji.”

Keigo sat up rather quickly at that.

“I beg your pardon! I remind you of that little blond sociopath of yours? I have never been that unstable!” He glared at his companion.

“Indeed,” Tezuka noted, a bit too neutrally for Keigo’s taste, as he made a new cast.

Keigo slouched back and made a mental note that a relaxed Tezuka, while not significantly more emotive, was a good deal more outspoken.

“I am content with my own choice,” Tezuka stated after a few minutes of silence. It took Keigo a moment to remember the question that this was an answer to. But, then, it was only what he would expect out of Tezuka’s particular inflexible integrity, that he would keep his end of even a forgotten agreement.

“Always?” Keigo wanted to know. Contemplative silence reigned again for a while before Tezuka replied.

“Like your choice, mine has results that please me. Those I don’t wish to deal with don’t bother me. My team obeys me.” Keigo smirked over that last, while Tezuka paused again. “Like you, I don’t like the pressures that originally made me learn these habits. But, like you, I chose something that would let me stand against those pressures. Those expectations. Those denials.”

Keigo had to fight a sudden urge to back away, quickly, from that deep, even voice saying such unexpected, personal, accurate things. A corner of his mind observed that it was no wonder his opponents on the court looked so alarmed when he did this kind of thing himself.

“I don’t recall saying any of that,” he observed in his best languid drawl. The look Tezuka turned on him was not at all relaxed; it reminded him, with unpleasant abruptness, of how Tezuka looked when he played.

“Why do you come here, Atobe?” Tezuka asked. The change in direction gave Keigo a moment of mental whiplash, but he understood what Tezuka was asking. And he was ruefully aware that he’d been asking for this when he decided to prod Tezuka. The real question, now, was whether he wanted to afford his rival, of all people, the kind of frankness that he had previously reserved for such undemanding recipients as the fish.

On the other hand, hadn’t he done that already? What else were their matches, if not utterly brutal honesty written out in every movement? Brutality, in fact, had been their point of contact from the beginning. It was pleasant to have a couple constants in one’s life. And, reputation to the contrary, Keigo had never been one to hand out anything he couldn’t take.

“I come here to trap slippery creatures, reel them in, and then decide whether I want to kill them or not,” he said, making another cast.

A sharp glint of appreciation lit Tezuka’s eye for a moment.

“And you,” Keigo suggested, “come here because the fish understand your sense of humor better than your friends.”

Tezuka picked up one of the sharp, barbed hooks from his tackle box and held it up so that it glinted in the sun.

“Perhaps.”

Several casts later, Keigo remembered something he’d been wanting to ask since he got here. “Why are you here today, Tezuka? You’ve never come on Thursdays before.”

“That’s how my schedule worked out, this spring,” Tezuka shrugged slightly and tilted a brow. “Yours?”

“Likewise.” They both contemplated this fact in silence. “Ah, well. It will add a touch of interest to the conclusion of high school.”

“To say the least,” Tezuka murmured, and set his hook in a hapless fish with a flick of his wrist.

TBC

A/N: I do know that fly-fishing, which is what Tezuka’s hobby, at least, is listed as, is not a sitting still on the shore sort of affair. Since I wanted to boys to talk, though, I took a bit of artistic license.