A month into his second year of high school Kippei was very pleased with the world. The fact that he was currently surrounded by spiky, vicious looking plants didn’t change that in the slightest. Nor the fact that Fuji was laughing at him, silently. Ann had been laughing at him for weeks, after all, and she was far less subtle about it. But the fact was, Kippei had his team back, and that was enough to distract him from any number of chortling siblings and flora of carnivorous appearance.
Not, of course, that he hadn’t been meeting with his team, his real team, to practice all last year. But now they were all in the same school again, and it was official. They were his again, and no one would even consider arguing. Least of all the lingering older tennis club members, none of whom could hold a candle to any of his players.
Fudoumine was back. Was it really any wonder he couldn’t stop smiling?
Even if he was wondering how many variations on gray-green and spiky one botanicals exhibit could fit in.
“It’s good to see you so happy,” Fuji murmured as they wandered the branching, pebbled paths that had, so far, been deserted of any fellow plant-life enthusiasts.
“I suppose I’ve been a bear about the tennis club for the last year, haven’t I?” Kippei asked, as apologetically as he could while he felt like grinning every time he thought of his team. Fuji chuckled.
“No more than Tezuka, certainly. He never said out loud, but we could all tell he was twitchy over not being in control of the team any more.”
“He seemed to respect your captain, though,” Kippei noted, with a hint of question.
Fuji didn’t answer immediately, instead exclaiming over the planting they had just come in sight of.
“They do have a Saguaro!” He laid his hands on the perimeter rope, as if he yearned to reach out and touch the tall plant. To Kippei it looked like the archetype of a cactus: a tall, striated barrel with arms branching out and up. “They’re endangered in America,” Shuusuke told him, sounding a bit wistful, “I thought it might only be a rumor. They take a very long time to mature; it’s one of the problems with propagating them.”
“Cacti are good at enduring, aren’t they?” Kippei asked. “Surely these will, too.”
“They’re like any plant. They endure anything except sudden environmental change.” His smile quirked. “I suppose it’s true of animals, too.” He sighed, faintly. “Tezuka does respect Yamato-buchou. He’s the one Tezuka got a lot of his sense of responsibility from. But Tezuka prefers direct commands, and Yamato-buchou tends to be rather roundabout. I think it made Tezuka… uncertain. Nor was there really anything any of us could do but wait it out.”
Kippei responded automatically to the shadow that darkened Shuusuke’s eyes, and wrapped a light arm around his shoulders. He could wish that it didn’t make Shuusuke feel guilty when he couldn’t help Tezuka, but that was the kind of person Shuusuke was. Natural success always left you ill prepared to deal with any failure at all, even failures that weren’t your fault.
“Humans are more flexible than plants,” he observed. He glanced down to find Fuji gazing at him with the same curious fascination he had been directing at the cacti. Kippei raised his brows.
“You touch so easily,” Fuji said.
“Is there some reason I shouldn’t?” Kippei asked. That wistful edge was back in Fuji’s voice, so Kippei didn’t think the statement was an indirect request to let go. Even when Shuusuke shied back from some intimacy, he never objected to Kippei’s touch. Kippei wondered, sometimes, whether that was Fuji’s promissory note; his assurance that, when he retreated, he only wanted a little space, not for Kippei to leave him alone. So Kippei had waited and let Fuji choose his own time. Lately, based on the thoughtful, sidelong looks he’d been getting from under Shuusuke’s lashes, he had started to hope that the time might be soon.
Thus his increased freedom with touching Fuji, which led to more direct looks. Looks that had begun to seem less thoughtful and more decisive.
Fuji seemed to consider his question, for a moment, before a small, secret smile crossed his face and he leaned ever so slightly against Kippei.
Kippei felt a tension that had been with him for a long, long time let go. It wasn’t that he thought Fuji had been deliberately teasing him…
Well, mostly not.
But the fact remained that Fuji was very skittish about receiving expressions of simple affection. Or, at least, he had been. He seemed to have decided that he could relax now. Kippei slid his arm down to Shuusuke’s waist and drew him a little closer. Shuusuke, however, having made up his mind, didn’t seem to think this was sufficient. He gave Kippei a sparkling, laughing smile and reached up to tug him down far enough to kiss him.
It was probably fortunate for Kippei’s heart that he’d realized some time since that Fuji Shuusuke didn’t have much in the way of middle gears. There was neutral, and then there was full ahead. Full ahead, in this case, was a warm, open mouthed kiss that lasted quite a while before Shuusuke let him go. Kippei took a moment to catch his breath and another to be pleased they were still the only visitors at the exhibit.
“You know,” he said, eventually, “for the longest time I thought you were in love with Tezuka.”
“I will always care very deeply for Tezuka,” Fuji told him, softly. “But if we were closer than friends, what he wants from me would be too…”
He broke off, but Kippei could fill in the rest. It was hard enough for Shuusuke to exert his strength seriously against a friend; to do so against a lover would probably tear him apart. He gathered Shuusuke a bit closer, still.
“Was that why you asked not to play opposite me?” Shuusuke asked, suddenly. Kippei blinked down at him a few times before releasing an exasperated sigh.
“I’m not the one who’s that machiavellian,” he pointed out. “I simply thought it would be better.” A chuckle vibrated through the body in his arms, and Kippei realized he was being teased.
He buried a smile of his own in the caramel colored hair under his chin.
Tuesdays, like most days of the week, featured afternoon practices for both Fudoumine and Seigaku. Thus, Kippei was a bit surprised when he emerged from locking up the club room to see Shuusuke pacing like a tiger in a cage under the somewhat alarmed eyes of Akira and Shinji. He must have left practice half-way through to be here already, and that wasn’t like Shuusuke.
Nor was the tight-lipped, hard eyed expression on his face as he glanced up at Kippei.
“You’re here early,” Kippei noted, a bit cautiously.
“Tezuka said I should go,” Shuusuke said. His voice was low and sharp, the way it got when he was angry and trying not to show it too much. And if Tezuka had sent him away from practice, it meant that whatever was wrong had made Shuusuke angry enough to affect his game.
Kippei had a few quick words with Akira and Shinji before waving his concerned seconds off and leading Shuusuke under the trees beside the courts. There was room to pace, there, and little likelihood of passers by at this time of day.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, leaning against a sturdy maple. Shuusuke stalked to the fence and back.
“Yuuta,” he bit out, “is actually considering dating that… snake Mizuki. The one who was almost responsible for injuring him. That heartless, amoral bastard is making advances on my little brother.”
Kippei carefully refrained from saying anything foolishly reasonable, at this point, such as It’s Yuuta’s choice in the end. It wouldn’t help. Besides, he knew perfectly well that, if it were Ann, he would have set off immediately to make Mizuki eat his own tennis balls until he renounced any interest in her.
“Are you worried he’ll hurt Yuuta-kun?” he asked, instead. Shuusuke came to an abrupt halt, fists clenched.
“It’s not just that,” he said, at last, sounding more strained now. “Mizuki has used Yuuta, before, to get at me. What if it’s like that again? And I can’t say something like that to Yuuta, not even to warn him!” He looked at Kippei, tense conflict in his eyes. Kippei winced. No, that wouldn’t work very well, would it?
Kippei didn’t really think that Yuuta hated the fact that his brother was a better tennis player than he. Anyone who watched him watching Shuusuke play could see the glow of pride, and Yuuta smiled when he heard someone praise Shuusuke’s skill. Always provided they didn’t mention Yuuta. What invariably enraged the boy seemed to be the automatic assumption that he was secondary. To be told that he was being approached only because of his connection to his brother, to be told by his brother no less, would send him up in flames.
Well, now he understood why Shuusuke was angry and tense enough to show it openly.
Voices coming around the side of the court interrupted his thoughts.
“…tennis club. They have a lot more pull than they did last year.” Another second year, who Kippei unfortunately recognized, turned the corner. He seemed to be showing a friend the school grounds. He looked up, noticed Kippei, and immediately sneered.
“Of course, it’s still a pretty slapdash club,” he remarked loudly. “Mostly a bunch of first years; can’t seem to get any interest from the senior students. Rumor has it they’re kind of… rowdy.”
Kippei sighed. Tokogawa and he had never gotten along, and the other second year liked to bait him. He’d chosen the wrong time to do so, though. Shuusuke was already in a poor temper; something of his had been threatened. He never let something like that slide, and for it to happen twice in one day…
Kippei leaned back against his tree and crossed his arms. Well, with luck this would let Shuusuke release some tension.
Tokogawa froze as Shuusuke pinned him with an arctic blue glare.
“Every team who has gone against Fudoumine with that attitude has met with the humiliating defeat such blindness deserves,” Shuusuke said, a flaying edge in his voice. “Their courage and determination, even more than their considerable talent, have earned the respect of both professionals and peers. Of whom you are clearly not one. To belittle something you know nothing of makes it clear how much of a fool you are.” His eyes narrowed, glinting, as Tokogawa gaped. “Unless, of course, you would like to try proving to me you do know enough?” he purred, gesturing toward the courts.
Tokogawa nearly tripped over himself getting turned around and hustling his friend away. Shuusuke watched them go, satisfaction wafting off him almost visibly.
“My team will be pleased to know you have such a good opinion of them,” Kippei observed, lightly. Shuusuke blinked over his shoulder, focus interrupted. Which had been the point of the comment, after all. Kippei smiled and held out his arms, offering. After a moment Shuusuke gave him a smile back and came to rest against him. Kippei stroked his hair and said nothing more. He didn’t know whether it was simply the novelty or not, but being held, silently, always calmed Shuusuke. That Shuusuke would let Kippei calm him seemed like a good sign at the moment.
“I suppose that was an overreaction,” Shuusuke sighed, at last, “but it annoys me when people make such petty attacks on you.”
“My hero,” Kippei teased, gently. Shuusuke sniffed. “What about Ann?” Kippei asked, suddenly.
“What about her?” Shuusuke lifted his head so he could give Kippei a curious look.
“Ann gets along reasonably well with Yuuta-kun, and she shares your opinion of Mizuki,” Kippei explained. “She might be able to at least warn him of the possibility.”
Shuusuke thought about that, and the longer he thought the wider his smile got. Finally he broke down chuckling, probably at the idea of the outspoken Ann pinning down the touchy, reserved Yuuta for a personal conversation.
“Ann-chan probably would be able to talk to him about it,” he said.
“I’ll mention it to her, then,” Kippei promised.
For the first time that day, Shuusuke truly relaxed, and let his head fall back to Kippei’s shoulder. Kippei set aside his own concerns in favor of appreciating the feeling of holding Shuusuke, alone in the warm, still afternoon.
That winter they had an ice storm, on a Saturday night by luck. Kippei found himself wandering through the frozen city, very shortly after sunup Sunday morning, with Shuusuke and his camera. He wasn’t entirely clear on how this had come about, but thought it might have had something to do with the phone call before he was entirely awake, and a promise of hot chocolate.
He supposed it was a good thing, every now and again, to be reminded that his lover was a ruthless manipulator who liked to win, and who, moreover, did it by reflex the way most people breathed. At least this time it wasn’t the pool hall. He’d never seen so many poor dupes fleeced in such a short period, and Shuusuke’s high good humor about the whole affair had been faintly unnerving.
He’d mentioned it to Tezuka the next time they’d met and gotten an amused chuckle in reply. He had never suspected Tezuka of such a low sense of humor.
“All right,” Shuusuke announced, having caught one last picture of the sun making an aureole of frozen branches, “that’s all the film. Ready to go back?”
Kippei agreed as mildly as he could. Not that the ice-coated trees and streets weren’t beautiful, but his toes were getting very numb.
He had never had more cause to be grateful that Yomiko-san was a sweet and thoughtful woman. Not only did she have hot chocolate waiting, she had also put a couple blankets by the heater to warm, and sent them straight up to Shuusuke’s room with those and a tray when they piled in the door, shivering. Shuusuke carefully labeled his rolls of film and put them in his to-be-developed basket before availing himself of either.
“There,” he said, with satisfaction, perching on the foot of the bed and winding his feet into one of the blankets. “And when it all melts, perhaps I can get some good shots at lower speed.”
“What difference does the speed make?” Kippei asked around his mug. Since he suspected he might find himself along for the next trip, too, he might as well know what was going on.
“The longer the shutter says open, the more movement is picked up by the film,” Shuusuke explained, wrapping pale fingers around his own mug. “You can get some wonderful effects with running water that way. Here.” He leaned over to pluck an album from his shelves, and flipped it open.
Kippei’s breath stopped. The photo was a study in contrasts. A small waterfall, long lines of soft white, was surrounded by leaves whose edges looked sharp enough to cut.
“Sometimes it’s like the world waits for you,” Shuusuke said in a far away tone. “The wind died completely just after I finished setting up the tripod. Nothing moved but the water, for the whole one second exposure. It was perfect.”
“Yes,” Kippei agreed, softly. Shuusuke glanced up at him, surprise melting into shy pleasure.
“Today was all very short exposure,” he continued, busying himself with putting the album away. Kippei shook his head, affectionately. Every time he touched something important to Shuusuke for the first time, Shuusuke slipped around it for a while. “The shorter the exposure, generally, the sharper the image. And ice needs its edges to show the beauty.”
“Will you show me today’s pictures, when they’re ready?” Kippei asked. Shuusuke gave him a smile more brilliant than the reflected morning light outside, and nodded.
Kippei decided, as Shuusuke curled up against him to share all the blankets, that this wasn’t such a bad way to start a Sunday after all.