Shuusuke sat with his chin in his hands and watched as Tachibana celebrated the first week of their first year in high school with an… experiment.
He couldn’t quite manage to simply call it “cooking”, not when he’d seen labs using hazardous chemicals pursued with less concentration.
Tachibana tasted what had started life as a Thai curry recipe with a thoughtful expression. He rummaged through through the spice rack for yet another unmarked canister and shook a careful sprinkle into the pot. After a thorough stir and another taste he finally nodded.
“Almost ready for the squid. Fuji, could you give me a hand and chop those lime leaves into strips?” he asked, turning to the refrigerator.
“Of course,” Shuusuke agreed. As he arranged the leaves on their long axis and took the knife Tachibana handed over, he reflected on the knack Tachibana had, the one Shuusuke admitted all his friends probably had to have, of drawing him in. Of making him participate rather than simply watch. Tachibana seemed to do it more unthinkingly than Eiji, who favored nagging until Shuusuke gave in. It was a game between them. Tachibana just asked, as casually as if he never noticed Shuusuke’s tendency to observe from the sidelines.
It was a puzzle, since Shuusuke couldn’t imagine that someone as observant as Tachibana himself was really hadn’t noticed. Fortunately, Shuusuke was fond of puzzles.
“So, how is the high school tennis club?” he asked, recalling Tachibana’s misgivings on that subject. Tachibana sniffed.
“There is one. That’s almost all I can say for it.” The innocent squid received an increasingly cold look. “The players are third rate, judging kindly, with no discipline to speak of. The coach lets them slack along with no motivation at all.”
“Ah, well, history is hard to overcome,” Shuusuke needled, gently. Tachibana gave him a trenchant look that Shuusuke parried with a cheerful smile.
It was true in both senses, though. Certainly the inertia of apathy did nothing to help Fudoumine’s high school tennis club. But the history that clung to Tachibana himself undoubtedly formed a stumbling block of its own. Ann had told him the whole story one day, last winter, when Tachibana had been detained by school matters and she had detailed herself to console his friend by taking Shuusuke for hot chocolate. Fear of Tachibana kept the coach and other students from interfering with his team, but it probably wouldn’t make either listen to his recommendations now.
“It isn’t as though I make a habit of losing my temper,” Tachibana grumbled, taking the shredded lime leaves and stirring them in. Shuusuke leaned against the counter beside him.
“No. But you can and you have, and that’s enough.” Shuusuke was familiar with the phenomenon.
“It shouldn’t be,” Tachibana said, inflexibly. “Anyone with the common sense to look at the circumstances would know perfectly well that I’m no more dangerous than you to people who are merely infuriating.”
Shuusuke blinked at him. After a moment his silence seemed to catch Tachibana’s attention.
“What?” his friend asked. “It’s obvious that you never let your temper go unless someone provokes you intolerably. You certainly never lose it on your own behalf.”
Shuusuke blinked again. Even his own teammates were a little… wary with him at times. But Tachibana appeared both serious and completely matter-of-fact. He made no further comment, but offered Shuusuke a spoon and gestured to the pot.
“See what you think.”
Shuusuke complied, and made a small, pleased, sound over the rich, tangy burn.
“Wonderful,” he declared. Tachibana nodded, satisfied.
And then he proceeded to divide the concoction into two separate pans, and added four cans of spice-diluting cocoanut milk to the larger, before apportioning the squid and covering them to simmer.
“Then everyone should have a good dinner,” he concluded.
Really, very little escaped Tachibana’s notice, Shuusuke decided.
By the middle of summer, Shuusuke was a frequent enough visitor at Tachibana’s house to tease his mother by calling her okaa-san, which made her laugh and say that he could almost pass for Ann’s brother. Ann had suggested that Tachibana should start calling Shuusuke his little brother, so Shuusuke could see what it was like for himself. Tachibana had given them all a tolerant look and sent Ann to fetch more ice for the water pitcher.
He seemed to understand how sensitive the subject of little brothers was for Shuusuke. Which made it more uncomfortable when he did press the issue.The most uncomfortable conversation on the subject actually started as one about Tezuka.
“I told him, today,” Shuusuke said, looking out the door to the Tachibanas’ porch.
“Tezuka?” Tachibana asked, and Shuusuke nodded.
“I told him I would play for him until we graduated. After that,” Shuusuke shook his head, “there’s really nothing in it for me.” Tachibana’s mouth twisted a bit.
“Did he argue with that?”
“No.” Shuusuke gave his friend an honest half smile. “Tezuka understands, I think.”
Tachibana said something under his breath that sounded like about time, but, before Shuusuke could ask, Ann came flying into the room and tackled her brother, who oof-ed obligingly.
“You’re almost too big to do that any more, Ann,” he told her, laying a hand on her head and smiling down at her. “What is it?”
“Okaa-san wants me to go shopping for some vegetables and fish. Is there anything you want me to pick up?”
“If you pick up some plums I’ll make umeboshi.”
Ann squeaked happily and promised to do so.
“Bye, Onii-chan, Fuji-niisan!” she called back on her way out the door.
“Ann…” Tachibana sighed, looking after her with exasperation. Shuusuke suppressed a chuckle. Nothing her brother said convinced Ann to stop calling Shuusuke that.
“It’s all right,” he said, mildly. Tachibana turned thoughtful eyes on him.
“Have you told your brother yet?” he asked. Shuusuke ruthlessly held back a flinch.
“Not yet. Did I tell you that Yuuta is the captain of St. Rudolph’s tennis club this year? The start of term is busy, and he hasn’t visited home yet, but he sent me an email to say.” He turned his public smile to Tachibana, and had to stifle a second flinch.
Tachibana’s expression was even and waiting, and just a touch stern. It was the same expression Shuusuke saw on Tezuka, when Tezuka knew he was talking around something.
“Fuji,” Tachibana said, quietly. Shuusuke looked away. “He’s not angry at you.”
“Really.” Shuusuke let his eyes turn sharp, even though he’d already noted that it didn’t have quite the usual effect on Tachibana. He still wanted his friend to know he was getting annoyed.
“Not,” Tachibana allowed, “that he isn’t several times more likely to argue with you about this than Tezuka. I expect Yuuta-kun will be outraged that he won’t have the chance to keep trying to beat you.”
An involuntary snort of laughter escaped Shuusuke. He had to admit, that sounded very likely.
“Fuji, part of why he loves tennis is because he loves you.”
That hit Shuusuke like a ball in the stomach, and he swallowed hard. There were times when he would have preferred a less perceptive friend.
“Does Ann-chan ever get angry at you just for being her older brother?” he asked, quietly.
“Of course she does, how do you think I know?” Tachibana answered, looking rueful. “Not to mention the uproar as soon as I say the first word about her dates.”
“Now that,” Shuusuke observed, “is not something I’ve had to worry about.”
“Be thankful for your blessings,” Tachibana told him, darkly. Shuusuke smiled for real.
“Oh, I am.”
It was an especially frosty day, which suited Shuusuke’s mood admirably.
He knocked on Tachibana’s door, and made polite conversation with his mother absently and automatically, mind ticking down the minutes until he could gracefully leave her and go find Tachibana in his room. Tachibana let him in, looking a bit surprised since they hadn’t arranged to meet that day and Shuusuke hadn’t called ahead. He ceded the desk chair, which by the looks of it he had been working at, to Shuusuke and sat against the side of his bed.
Shuusuke examined his folded hands, considering the best way to begin.
“The tennis club was talking today about who were likely to be Regulars next year,” he said at last. “Everyone assumes Tezuka and I, and Eiji and Oishi, of course.” He paused. “One of the second years, it seems, has noticed you and I talking at the tournaments this year, and wanted to know if it was all right with me, being so friendly with someone who would be an enemy. He was joking, I think,” Shuusuke added as Tachibana started forward a little.
“As we were leaving, though,” he continued, “Tezuka mentioned to me that I would not, in fact, be playing you. Ever. That you had asked not.”
“Yes, I did,” Tachibana agreed. The casual calm of his tone came close to snapping Shuusuke’s temper. One more question, he thought.
“Did you think I needed to be protected?” he asked, and despite his best control he could hear the cut-glass edge in his own voice. Tachibana was silent almost long enough to make Shuusuke look up at him.
“Yes,” he said at last. Shuusuke’s gaze shot up at that, glaring.
“I am not weak,” he enunciated, low and dangerous, “nor fragile, nor so volatile that I can’t handle playing against you.”
“I didn’t think you were,” Tachibana sighed. He ran a hand through his hair, looking harried. “Fuji…”
Shuusuke raised a brow and waited. He didn’t move as Tachibana got up and came to kneel in front of the chair. Not an eyelash flickered as Tachibana set both hands on his shoulders.
“Fuji, everyone needs to be protected. Even the ones who usually do the protecting. It doesn’t mean you’re weak; it means you’re as human as the next person. And I don’t, for one instant, believe you are less human than the next person.”
Shuusuke stiffened, hearing echoes in his mind of things overheard, spoken behind hands. It wasn’t very far from genius to monster, he’d known that for a long time. But that wasn’t the point.
“I don’t need to be sheltered,” he said, firmly. Tachibana heaved a much longer sigh this time.
“Fuji, listen to me,” he said. “Just because you can survive exposure to ice cold rain doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I’m not saying you aren’t strong enough for everyone else, or that you shouldn’t be. Just let someone return the favor every now and then.” His eyes softened. “No one ever really has, have they? Or you wouldn’t be making so much of this.”
That gave Shuusuke pause for thought. Eiji helped him… to make mischief. He always listened when Shuusuke wanted to talk, but he never pushed and he’d certainly never done anything like this. Onee-san, well, she was always there, but… never like this. Tezuka… Tezuka drew him on. Tezuka guarded, but he didn’t protect. Still. Wasn’t there some inconsistency, in Tachibana saying this to him?
“Who do you let protect you?” he challenged. The sudden lightening of Tachibana’s expression took him by surprise.
“Ann, sometimes. Kamio, sometimes.” Tachibana laughed a little. “Neither of them would ever forgive me if I didn’t let them.”
Shuusuke considered that. No one with the slightest observational skills would ever suggest that Tachibana Kippei was less than a very able protector of his family and his team. Yet… they protected him? Memories emerged, of Ann facing down anyone who showed her brother and his people less than respect, of Kamio fielding administrative problems before they could ever come to his captain’s attention. Perhaps they did, Shuusuke mused.
Actually, that suggested a compromise that his heart and mind might both agree on.
“Would you let me?” he asked. Tachibana smiled up at him slowly.
“Turn about is certainly fair play,” he admitted.
He started to sit back, and, impulsively, Shuusuke caught one hand as it left his shoulder. Just to say thank you… it wasn’t enough this time. He lifted Tachibana’s hand, pressed his lips to the back of the fingers, and let go.
He heard Tachibana’s breath catch. The fingers paused, returned to brush against his cheek, light as butterflies landing.
“Fuji?” he asked, very softly.
Shuusuke found he could only look at Tachibana openly for a few moments. There was warmth there. Not just an umbrella against that cold rain, but a pile of towels, too, Shuusuke though, amused at his own imagery. But it was warmth he wasn’t quite sure how to reach towards.
“I interrupted your homework, I’m sorry,” he apologized, veiling his eyes again.
“It’s all right.” Tachibana stood and stepped back. “I was about to take a break and make some tea in any case. Join me?”
“I’d like that,” Shuusuke agreed.