Atobe seemed to have something on his mind this week. He kept glancing over at Kunimitsu and then away. After the fourth time he did it, Kunimitsu sighed.
“You might as well say whatever it is.”
Atobe really must have been distracted, because he immediately recoiled to his default response of mockery.
“What,” he drawled, “you think you can figure it out if I don’t? Let us witness your great deductive abilities, then.”
Kunimitsu eyed him. Atobe didn’t often fall back on that sort of thing any more. He shrugged one shoulder. “I think that if I wait quietly you’ll say in any case. You might was well say it now as later.” Atobe blinked, and slouched back, grumbling under his breath.
“Just because I know how to use my tongue…”
Kunimitsu smiled. It was too perfect. He couldn’t resist.
“Do you, now?” he murmured.
Atobe’s eyes widened, and he stared at Kunimitsu for several beats before he burst out laughing. There, that was better. Atobe’s mocking humor was a serrated thing, both sleek and ugly, subtle and vicious. Kunimitsu preferred it when Atobe relaxed enough to laugh, instead.
“Innuendo from Tezuka Kunimitsu,” Atobe managed at last, “be still my heart! The world must be ending.” He sighed and looked out over the lake. “I was wondering why you invited me to stay. That first day we were both here.”
The question surprised Kunimitsu. Most of the understanding between he and Atobe was unspoken. He had not expected Atobe to want to change that. Well, how to explain, then?
“The things you say here,” he began, at length, “could you say them anywhere else?” Atobe’s eyes flickered. Kunimitsu turned one hand palm up. “Neither could I. But you aren’t a member of my team, that I have to maintain my authority with. You aren’t a classmate I have to get along with. I have no family duty to you. And there are things you understand.”
Atobe considered this for a while.
“You were so sure of all that at the time?” he asked, finally, not quite mocking but clearly on edge. Kunimitsu’s mouth tightened; he wasn’t sure Atobe would accept the answer, but he had asked for it. And while Atobe might not have noticed it, yet, Kunimitsu told him the things he asked directly. Always.
“We’ve been playing each other for years, now,” he pointed out. “You are very honest when you play full out. And given that key, you aren’t difficult to read at other times, either.”
Tension threaded through Atobe.
“Besides,” Kunimitsu added, after a moment, returning to the original question, “sometimes you quote German poets with a very bad accent. It’s an amusing way to pass the afternoon.” The tension leaked away as Atobe drew himself up.
“A bad accent?” he repeated, in a deeply offended tone. The gleam in his eye undercut his supposed indignation.
“Horrible,” Kunimitsu confirmed, evenly. “You mangle the gutturals.” Atobe snorted.
“Well, if it’s a good accent you want…” He tilted his head, consideringly, and started to recite in what Kunimitsu recognized, after a few sentences, as Greek. He thought the language suited Atobe. The sound of it was sharp, but it had a rolling rhythm, like an avalanche of broken stone seen from far enough away to make it fluid. When Atobe finished, Kunimitsu quirked a brow at him. Atobe’s smile was a bit distant as he translated.
“Imagine the condition of men living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can only see what is in front of them. At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them.” He paused. “The prisoners so confined would have seen nothing of themselves or of one another, except the shadows thrown by the firelight on the wall of the Cave facing them, would they?”
“Plato,” Kunimitsu identified it. Atobe nodded. It had to be from The Republic, as that was the only thing by Plato that Kunimitsu had ever read. He remembered being irked by the man’s complacence, while appreciating the idea of ability being allowed to lead. On reflection he wasn’t at all surprised that Atobe knew it well enough to quote.
Though what he had chosen to quote today indicated that he focused more on the bleak picture of human understanding than on the bright, brittle vision of a perfected society. That didn’t entirely surprise Kunimitsu either.
“I think I prefer the German poets,” he said quietly. A particular passage from one of his favorites came to mind, and he quoted it in turn. “You know how much more remarkable I always find the people walking about in front of paintings than the paintings themselves. It’s no different here, except for the Cézanne room. Here, all of reality is on his side: in this dense quilted blue of his, in his red and his shadowless green and the reddish black of his wine bottles. And the humbleness of his objects: the apples are all cooking apples and the wine bottles belong in the roundly bulging pockets of an old coat.“
Atobe looked at him inquiringly. “That’s not poetry.”
“It’s a poet’s letter about a painter’s work,” Kunimitsu explained. “Rilke writing about Cézanne.”
“You like Rilke enough to memorize his letters?” Atobe asked on a chuckle.
“The philosophy of artists appeals to me,” Kunimitsu told him softly. Atobe was silent, with the rare depth in his eyes that only showed when he was thinking seriously about a challenging idea. Kunimitsu kept his gaze as light as he could. Atobe was… compelling like this. But he didn’t think it would be wise to let his companion know that.
It wasn’t as though his ego needed the assistance.
“Cooking apples, hm?” Atobe murmured. “That’s certainly different from the ideal Form of Apple-ness.”
“Quite,” Kunimitsu agreed, dryly. Atobe leaned toward him.
“But isn’t perfection what we’re looking for? Especially on the court?”
“Yes,” Kunimitsu allowed, “but perfection differs from one player to another. There wouldn’t be a game if it didn’t.”
“You don’t think the final winner would be the one who found the real perfection?” Atobe challenged, dark eyes almost glowing.
“If that were true you and I should be converging toward a similar style.” Kunimitsu noted. “We’re not.” Atobe leaned back with a delighted smile.
“Good point.” Then he gave Kunimitsu a narrow look. “Why haven’t you ever argued philosophy with me before, Tezuka? You’ve been holding back on me.”
Kunimitsu couldn’t hold back a quiet laugh. It was so like Atobe to be irate over something like that. He was just a bit surprised that Atobe also seemed to feel that they had passed from rivals good enough to talk to friends good enough to argue. But perhaps Atobe hadn’t thought it out quite that far. Kunimitsu had rarely observed him applying his quite incisive intelligence to his own feelings.
“I won’t any longer, if you like,” he offered.
“I should hope not,” Atobe admonished him. “So, are you familiar with Theses on the Philosophy of History?”
Neither of them really seemed to mind that they didn’t catch any fish at all that day.
A/N: The passages of Plato and Rilke in this story are quoted, with a few artistic inaccuracies, from The Republic of Plato, Oxford Press edition, translated by Francis Cornford and Letters on Cézanne, North Point Press edition, translated by Joel Agee.
For those who may be curious, Theses on the Philosophy of History is a thoroughly cracked-out essay by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. I highly recommend it. That it appears as subject matter in one of Laurie Anderson’s songs should tell you something about how wonderfully bizarre it is.